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‘Spotlight’ journalists didn’t foresee impact of church abuse investigation

Globe reporter Walter Robinson, center, walked the red carpet during the Boston premiere of Spotlight.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

How the world has changed in the 13 years since the Spotlight Team first revealed that the leader of the Catholic Church in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, allowed one of his priests to continue working even though Law knew that Fr. John Geoghan had spent his career sexually assaulting children.

Since the Globe uncovered a pattern of moving pedophile priests rather than stopping them, the scandal has spread to more than 100 cities across the nation and at least 100 more around the world. In the Boston archdiocese alone, more than 250 priests and brothers have been publicly accused of abusing minors. The Globe wrote 600 stories on priest sexual abuse in 2002 and won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the coverup, which is chronicled in the new movie "Spotlight."


But, when the Globe published the first story on Jan. 6, 2002, no one on the Spotlight Team imagined that a five-month investigation would lead to Law's resignation and a global crisis for the Catholic Church that continues to this day.

"I don't think any of us had a sense of what was going to happen," recalls my Spotlight colleague Sacha Pfeiffer.

Today, more than a decade after American bishops pledged to better protect young people from sexual abuse, the scandal is still not over. Bishops in Kansas City and Minneapolis were recently removed from their posts for continuing to cover up for abusive priests.

And in Rome, Pope Francis established a commission chaired by Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley to study clergy sexual abuse, along with a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for abuse in their dioceses. But survivors want to see more concrete action before they'll be convinced these measures are more than public relations.

For the Spotlight Team — and many others at the Globe — the far-reaching impact of the investigation has yielded invaluable lessons.


One is the importance of investigative reporting in holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their actions — even those that profess to be paragons of probity and morality.

As the business model for newspapers across the country falters, many news organizations are cutting their investigative staffs or eliminating them entirely. And no wonder. Investigative journalism is expensive. The Spotlight Team's investigation of the church started with four reporters and expanded to eight shortly after the initial stories were published. That whole group stayed on the story for the rest of the year.

But the Globe actually has increased its commitment to investigative reporting, shoring up the Spotlight Team's traditional roster of four with two more reporters, creating a permanent six-person team.

The clergy abuse investigation also provided an early lesson in the power of the Internet. Although it may seem all-too-obvious today, the Globe's decision to post church documents used in its reporting provided readers with powerful, direct evidence that Law and other church officials had spent decades covering up Geoghan's abuses.

The Internet also helped spread the Spotlight Team's stories — and the church's internal records — worldwide, spurring lawsuits, investigations by other news organizations, and complaints from thousands of victims.

At the same time, the investigation underscored the importance of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. Though new technologies have provided investigative reporters with an array of shiny tools, the series showed there is no substitute for knocking on doors for face-to-face encounters with reluctant sources who needed to be assured of a reporter's sincerity or determination.


Perhaps most important, the investigation highlighted the need for vigilance, or a continuing commitment to cover and advance the story.

Since the publication of those early stories, the Globe has continued to hold the church accountable for its actions regarding clergy sexual abuse.

In 2012, the Globe revealed that a prominent Jesuit and trustee at Boston College played a major role in covering up decades of abuse by a Jesuit priest from Chicago. In 2014, the Globe reported that a prominent American cleric named by Pope Francis to prosecute cases of priestly abuse was himself involved in the coverup of molestations.

But the stories from 2002 take us back to a time before anyone knew how far the scandal would reach, a time when powerful people tried to deny that there was any scandal at all.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at