Courageous Conversation: Panel Marks Twentieth Anniversary of Boston Globe Spotlight Stories About Clergy Abuse

The realities of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church might still be unknown without the efforts of investigative journalists. That was one of the main messages of a panel discussion hosted last week by Awake Milwaukee to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight stories on clergy abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston.

“Twenty Years Since Spotlight: How Journalists Have Uncovered Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” was part of Awake’s ongoing Courageous Conversations series. The event featured Walter “Robby” Robinson (above left), editor-at-large at the Boston Globe, who led the Spotlight team that reported on clergy abuse and won a Pulitzer Prize for that work; Jason Berry (above center), a groundbreaking investigative reporter who wrote about abusive priests in the mid-1980s, more than 15 years before the Boston Globe; and Anne Barrett Doyle (above right), co-director of Bishop Accountability, an extensive archive of information about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, including more than 100,000 news stories.

In a lively, wide-ranging conversation, Robinson and Berry shared details about how they reported these stories, and Barrett Doyle offered insights about the importance of journalists in exposing abusive priests and bishops. See the recording of the event below. 

“Accountability cannot happen without public disclosure, period,” Barrett Doyle said. “The Church has repeatedly tried—and it’s still trying—to police itself. It simply cannot do it because it’s too devoted to secrecy and to its institutional preservation. When the news media gathers evidence of cover-up and reports it, a virtuous cycle begins. Disclosure leads to more disclosure, and in the best cases leads to prosecutions, better laws, and a more educated public.”

Moved By What They Uncovered

Robinson, a veteran journalist who was portrayed by actor Michael Keaton in the film Spotlight, noted that the stories about clergy abuse and cover-up felt different than other investigative projects. The more the reporters uncovered, the more disturbed and driven they became. “That drove us to work for months on end, seven days a week, trying to dig this story up,” Robinson said. “That is not a normal emotion… when you’re approaching even an investigative topic. In this case we were so appalled by what we were finding out that it gave us the energy to just keep going.” 

Berry described similar shock in his work reporting on abusive priest Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette, Louisiana. An attorney gave him access to depositions from the case after Gauthe was indicted. “I was just agog,” Berry recalled. “I was stunned that the bishop and another diocesan official had moved this guy around for so long, knowing what he had previously done. I immediately thought of Watergate. It was a cover-up to me. Strangely enough, I never thought of it as a religion story. I thought of it as a political story, the abuse of power.”

Berry wrote a series of articles that were published jointly by the Times of Acadiana in Lafayette and the National Catholic Reporter in 1985. He went on to write the book Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, published in 1992, and appeared on talk shows and news programs with victim-survivors to discuss clergy abuse. But news coverage on this topic dried up around 1994, due in part, Berry said, to a situation involving Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of the Archdiocese of Chicago. At that time a man filed a lawsuit against the cardinal, accusing Bernadin of abusing him in seminary in the 1970s. But the man soon withdrew the charges, saying that his memories of the time were unreliable.  “As a consequence, the whole media narrative shifted almost overnight,” Berry recalled, “from bishops covering up abusive clerics, to false memory, vagaries of the mind, quack therapists.” 

In contrast with that short-lived coverage, the Boston Globe stories sparked what Robinson called a “tsunami of coverage” about clergy abuse. The Boston Globe stories in 2002 coincided with the dawn of the internet, which meant that readers could visit the web to see official documents related to the coverage and could email the articles to others. “All of our stories went viral,” Robinson explained. “We had phone calls or emails from over 300 survivors just in the Boston Archdiocese,” he added, as well as messages from survivors around the U.S. and the world. “If we’d had the internet in the mid-80s,” Robinson said. “I suspect that all of this might have come tumbling down then.”

The Role of Victim-Survivors

At the start of this event, Awake Executive Director Sara Larson acknowledged the importance of victim-survivors in the process of exposing sexual abuse. “While we are highlighting the work of journalists in uncovering abuse within the Church, we know that none of this would have been possible without the courageous survivors who spoke up and told their stories,” she said. 

Berry and Robinson both described moving conversations with survivors. Berry spoke about going to Mexico City in 1997 to interview men who had been abused as seminarians by Fr. Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. After their stories appeared, the survivors were attacked publicly for many years. “This was devastating to these men in Mexico,” he said. “These guys were out on a very long limb.” Robinson described talking with some of the hundreds of victim-survivors who called the Boston Globe after the first Spotlight stories appeared. “I would say that in the vast majority of cases, the survivors who called us thought that they had been the only one that this had ever happened to,” he recalled. “Almost none of them had told anyone about it, not even their spouses.”

Anti-Catholic Bias?

Late in the discussion, the panel addressed charges that news coverage of sexual abuse in the Church reflects an anti-Catholic bias. Robinson disagreed strongly.

“At a time when the Globe was under attack for our initial reporting, the fact is that some of the most conservative Catholics, who detested the Globe for other reasons (having to do probably with its liberal editorial page)… were among the first to pick up their phones and call us to thank us for what we did because a) it was documented, it was irrefutable evidence, and b) they had raised their children in the Catholic Church and they were horrified about what their Church had done,” Robinson said.

Later he noted that although the truths about sexual abuse and cover-up were painful for Catholics to learn, not knowing the truth was far worse. 

What Is Coverage Like Now?

The panelists stressed that investigative reporting about the Catholic Church is less likely to occur today, twenty years after the Spotlight stories. News organizations are now dramatically underfunded, employing only a fraction of the staff they once did. “There are now half as many daily news reporters as there were in 2004,” Robinson explained. “Many newspapers are so-called ‘ghost papers.’ They have only a small handful of reporters. They can’t even begin to think about doing investigative reporting.”

He noted that after the Boston Globe concluded its Spotlight coverage of clergy abuse in 2003, “the amount of coverage fell off.” Such stories are much less likely to be covered today in the United States, but courageous reporting about the Catholic Church is currently happening overseas, in countries including Poland, France, and Spain. Barrett Doyle praised stories by the news portal Onet in Poland, which revealed court documents showing attempts by church officials there to harass an abuse victim. “The Church is still at it,” she said. “Where there isn’t vigilance, where the laws still aren’t on the side of victims, the Church is still doing this.”

Robinson expressed hope that emerging nonprofit newsrooms, funded by donors, might provide the best platforms for future investigative reporters to hold accountable important institutions including the Church.

In response to an audience question about how the Church might move forward from the problems of sexual abuse and cover-up, Barrett Doyle said that she sees the solution “outside the Church,” in the courts. She also believes that the Church must “revamp canon law and make it less of a priest-preservation system and more of a balanced and sane way of addressing allegations and dealing with credibly accused priests and bishops.”

At the conclusion of the event, Barrett Doyle reflected on the benefits of information-sharing. “What moves me the most about our work, and I’m sure that Jason and Robby have found this too, is the response from survivors when we provide information,” she said. Barrett Doyle gave the example of the priest assignment histories that Bishop Accountability reconstructs. It’s simple information, but victim-survivors often respond with relief when they can see specifics about where their abusers served. “Providing information is the best way to address the pain,” Barrett Doyle said. “The information can be painful, but as Robby said, the alternative is far worse.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

The Conversation Continues, Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central this Thursday, January 20.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2. See you on Thursday!



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