How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church

The tenacity of Boston Globe journalists in uncovering the scandal of widespread sexual abuse by priests led to the current crisis in the Catholic church. And there’s more to come, as Jon Henley reports

Cardinal Bernard Law
In December 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned after documents showed that, despite knowing about sexual abuse by some priests, Boston bishops had failed to act. Photograph: Michael Dwyer/AP

In June 2001, Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, perhaps the most staunchly Catholic of all America’s big cities, filed a routine court submission in response to a number of allegations contained in lawsuits brought against one of his former priests, Father John Geoghan.

At the time, sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clerics was not a widespread topic of discussion, in the US or anywhere else. Cases would surface, and sometimes be quite extensively reported: in 1981, Father Donald Roemer pleaded guilty to child molestation in Los Angeles; in 1985, a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe, was convicted of similar offences against 11 boys. But they were seen, for the most part, as isolated incidents. There was no convincing evidence of any consistent pattern of clerical abuse, still less of a sustained attempt by the church to cover up such behaviour – by simply moving priests on without informing the authorities.

Cardinal Law’s seemingly innocent court filing, though, was about to change that. Buried somewhere in it was the admission that when, in 1984, he had assigned Geoghan to St Julia’s church in the Boston suburb of Weston, he had done so knowing that the priest had, in his previous parish, been accused of molesting seven boys from the same family.

With fresh allegations of abuse and cover-ups now surfacing almost daily, and calls in the UK for Pope Benedict to be arrested, something resembling the worldwide crisis facing the Catholic church would surely have happened sooner or later. But it is possible it would not be happening now, on such a large scale and with such potentially disastrous consequences for the church, had it not been for the work of a small group of journalists – the majority of them Catholic – from the Boston Globe newspaper, who were the first to spot Cardinal Law’s startling admission.

“I think we all had a sense, even before our first story came out, that this was an explosive subject with huge potential impact,” says Michael Paulson, the paper’s former religious affairs correspondent, who helped the paper to win the 2003 Pulitzer prize for exposing both the full extent of sexual abuse by Boston Catholic clergy, and the shameful response to it of Cardinal Law and his bishops. “But I think we were still all taken aback by how quickly and dramatically it exploded – first here, then across the country and around the world.”

For Michael Rezendes, a member of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and lead writer on the first story in the paper’s prize-winning series, “There’s no question in my mind that our work was the spark. We were the forerunners. Given that Boston is the largest Catholic city in America, it was quite courageous of the editors – we could have alienated a lot of readers. But the court cases we won, the church documents we got released, became precedent; they encouraged other papers and other lawyers in other cities to follow suit.”

Walter Robinson, then Spotlight editor, says the paper’s reporting “put the match to some very, very dry tinder”. That’s certainly true: within two years of the first of the Globe’s 800 articles on the scandal appearing in January 2002, Rezendes notes, Cardinal Law had resigned, 150 priests in Boston stood accused of sexual abuse, more than 500 victims had filed abuse claims, and church-goers’ donations to the archdiocese had slumped by 50%.

In Sin against the Innocents, a 2004 book on clerical sex abuse by a range of experts, Rezendes also notes that over the same period, across America as a whole, more than 450 priests and four bishops resigned, and several states, including Massachusetts, introduced new laws obliging clergy to report any knowledge of child sex abuse to the civil authorities. And yet, he adds today, “We’re still far from knowing the full story.”

Law’s initial argument was that when he transferred Geoghan to his new parish, neither he, the Catholic church, nor indeed society as a whole, understood how difficult it was to change the behaviour of child sex abusers. But, Rezendes writes, “We found, within a matter of days, that Geoghan was only one of a large number of priests who had sexually molested children and been given new assignments.”

The Globe reporters were also quietly told of many dozens of cases over the previous decade or so, in which the church had settled claims against molesting priests privately, often including a clause that barred the victims or their families from ever talking about it. Concrete evidence of those settlements, however, would be harder to find.

“For years,” says Paulson, “the church had been extremely protective of its reputation. In Massachusetts, there had been several civil cases against individual priests and the archdiocese. And in Catholic Boston, the church had managed to ensure that a whole mass of the documents relating to those cases were filed under seal – in other words, they were secret.”

In fact, it emerged, some 10,000 pages of church documents concerning 84 different lawsuits against Father Geoghan alone were protected by a superior court confidentiality order; many more were mysteriously missing.

The Globe decided to contest the court confidentiality order, and battle (before a Catholic judge) was formally joined. The archdiocese argued, forcefully, that it was constitutionally entitled it to keep its records confidential, and that a newspaper had no business knowing anything about them anyway. The Globe, backed by lawyers for the victims, argued that the public interest in the Geoghan case surely outweighed the church’s desire for privacy.

Awaiting the result of the judge’s deliberations, the reporters dug deeper into Geoghan’s 30-year career, finding traces of earlier abuse. Separately, they found out all they could about those shadowy private settlements. Talking to lawyers likely to have represented victims in such cases, cross-referencing their cases with those of lawyers known to act for the archdiocese, and trawling painstakingly through public court records, they gradually compiled a list of what looked like possible clerical abuse cases. Often, they found that the actual documents relating to these cases had been sealed – at the church’s request.

Finally, they spent long hours poring over the church’s own publications, looking for the names of priests who had been recorded as being “on sick leave”, “in between assignments”, or “reassigned”. Some of the 100-odd names they arrived at, writes Rezendes, matched those on the list the reporters had compiled during their trawl of public databases; others matched names the reporters had been given confidentially by interviewees.

In November 2001, the judge ruled that the confidentiality order imposed on the documents in the Geoghan case should be lifted, and that any records missing from the public file should be resubmitted. The archdiocese’s lawyers appealed, and threatened legal action if any material based on the confidential files was published – but in early January the paper went ahead with a two-part series on Geoghan.

The impact, Paulson says, was “immense, and immediate. The reason our coverage caused such crisis was not that the documents we had showed priests had abused children, but that the bishops knew about it, and still failed to keep those priests away from children.” The previously missing evidence against the archdiocese was devastating, Rezendes recalls: one bishop had advised Law in writing against reassigning Geoghan because of his “history of homosexual involvement with young boys”.

The Globe’s first story also featured a heartbreaking interview with Maryetta Dussourd, whose three sons, and the four sons of her niece Diane, had been abused by Geoghan years earlier, in the 1970s, and with whom the church had settled privately. “She’d written this incredibly painful and poignant letter to the cardinal at the time,” Paulson recalls. “You could feel all her passion for the church, her deep respect for the cardinal – and her shock and pain that despite her dozens of complaints, he was still continuing to work with children. That was what really got to people, I think.”

In late January, the 10,000 pages of sealed Geoghan documents were finally released. Once more, the evidence against the church was overwhelming: the doctors who assessed the priest were unqualified; the board that approved his reassignment may have been leaned on. Then, on the last day of January 2002, the paper unleashed perhaps the most shocking of all its revelations that year.

As a result of their five exhaustive months of database-mining, interviewing and cross-referencing, the eight Globe reporters on the case had established that the Boston archdiocese had, over the previous decade, privately settled sexual abuse claims made by Catholic families against a staggering 70 of its priests.

Geoghan, in other words, was no lone offender. He was part of a massive problem. And as Robinson now says: “There seemed very little chance that this was about something funny in the water in Boston. I recall saying to groups around the country, ‘The same thing has to be happening here, under your noses. It’s simply because documents are under judicial protection, and people are unwilling to confront the church, that it’s not coming out here.'”

By the end of January, the documentary damage was essentially done. But by then, the first of hundreds of victims had begun contacting the paper with their stories. A further spate of civil lawsuits against the archdiocese followed, and the Globe reporters’ hard work was finally crowned when an exasperated judge ordered the archdiocese to make public every single private church file kept on every Boston priest ever accused of sexual abuse. The floodgates were well and truly opened – and, despite last-minute moves by Cardinal Law to suspend a number of accused priests, in December 2002 he had to resign.

Today, Paulson believes there were three main reasons why the Globe’s coverage resonated so strongly around the country, and the world. “First, we got to the documents,” he says. “We ended up with material relating to more than 100 priests. We had letters from parents, letters to and from priests, masses of internal church documents showing abusive priests being repeatedly moved. Also, the internet enabled our reporting to be read all over. And I think there was a kind of evolution of culture, a moment in history when people were willing to talk critically about religion. Often in the past that just hasn’t been possible.”

The church in America did go some way to responding to the developing crisis, Rezenes says, drawing up in mid-2002 a charter for the protection of children and young people, demanding “a commitment to transparency and openness”. But while some bishops have since gone a long way towards meeting that, he adds, “what I’ve largely seen is a failure to really come to grips with sex abuse in the church, and a failure to live up to repeated promises to be more transparent. Some bishops have cited the First Amendment in a bid to withhold records. The diocese of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, recently went all the way to the supreme court.”

With first-hand experience of the lengths to which the church is prepared to go to keep its secrets, none of the Boston Globe reporters say they are particularly surprised at the turn events have taken, nor at the situation in which the church finds itself in today. “I’m about the least surprised person I know,” says Robinson. “All that surprises me is that it took this long for the extensive abuse that occurred in, for example, continental Europe to come out. And I’ve been astonished at how tone deaf the Vatican has been in a PR sense.”

There is far more yet to come, the reporters believe. All three note that the countries in which cases of Catholic clerical abuse have emerged have been relatively secular states: America, Canada, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, even Ireland. “It will eventually have to come out in Spain, Italy, Latin America, too,” says Robinson. “But for the time being, the church in countries like that is far more protected by the state.” Certainly, adds Paulson, “in countries where there is more deference to clergy and the church, victims are less likely to come forward.”

So can the Catholic church survive this crisis, reform, and recover its moral credibility? “It’s capable of it,” says Rezendes. “It remains to be seen if it has the will.”

Paulson agrees. “The Catholic church is an enormous institution,” he says. “Certainly some bishops, and many members, understand the enormity of what has happened. But there are still plenty who believe this is all an anti-Catholic conspiracy, that the church is being persecuted. The damage is real, but the church is not of one mind as to whether it is best to apologise and reform, or resist and fight. That argument has not yet been decided.”

Source: How the Boston Globe exposed the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church | Catholicism | The Guardian

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