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The Boston Globe: Challenging the Catholic Church

A look at The Boston Globe, the newspaper that first uncovered extensive sexual abuse cover-ups in the city's Catholic Church.

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    St. Patrick's Day in south Boston. Few cultural traditions are more sacred and festive in this, the fourth largest Catholic diocese in the nation, and the most Catholic city per capita amongst the large dioceses.

    But during this Lenten season, the Catholic Church is reeling from a national scandal. At least 55 priests in 17 dioceses have been removed, suspended, put on leave, or forced to resign or retire because of molestation of children and minors.

    Here at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law presides over the troubled archdiocese of Boston. Earlier this month, it agreed to pay up to $30 million to 86 victims of Father John Geoghan, who was convicted in January of sexually molesting a ten-year-old boy more than a decade ago.

    In a dramatic statement earlier this month, Cardinal Law apologized to Boston Catholics for the pain of the Church scandal.

    BERNARD CARDINAL LAW, Archbishop of Boston: And I stand before you recognizing that the trust which many of you had in me has been broken, and it has been broken because of decisions for which I was responsible, which I made. I heard you say that.

    With all my heart, I am sorry for that. I apologize for that, and I will reflect on what this all means.


    The Cardinal's mea culpa followed a remarkable example of dogged reporting by another of Boston's venerable institutions, the 130-year-old Boston Globe.

    The paper broke the Geoghan story in January by using an unusual but deceptively simple approach: It went to court to unseal these previously confidential documents, ranging from legal depositions to internal Church correspondence.

    They demonstrate that the Church knew for years that Father Geoghan was continuing to molest children for decades as he was moved from parish to parish.

    Despite the Church's initial attempt to hush the Geoghan case, the story has mushroomed. After pressure from The Globe and the public, the archdiocese handed over to local prosecutors the names of more than 90 priests as possible sexual offenders of minors.

    Neither the Church nor the authorities have made the names public, but The Globe has been able to identify 70 of the priests, and so far has published 35 names.


    The reporting resonated positively and negatively, even among those attending the St. Patrick's Day Parade.


    Well, I encourage The Boston Globe to keep doing the coverage that they've been doing. I think it's important that we're informed of what's going on.

    Maybe this is going to finally produce the changes that are necessary if the Catholic religion wants to continue to keep its followers.


    Reading in the paper, I just think it's been unfair as far as all the publicity.


    Some Catholics feel it's just a witch hunt. They are trying to go after every priest that has ever looked at a kid sideways.


    The first stories raising questions about the Geoghan case appeared last year in the alternative paper the weekly Boston Phoenix.

    For The Globe, reporting on the story started in earnest last July, when a Globe columnist noted that all of the legal discovery in the Geoghan case continued to be under a confidentiality order.


    As it happened, the day after the column appeared, a new editor, Martin Baron, arrived at The Globe fresh from the helm at The Miami Herald.

    Accustomed to the open-documents, so-called "sunshine laws" of Florida, he said for him it was a simple decision on how to proceed.

  • MARTIN BARON, Editor, Boston Globe:

    Well, I thought it was an extraordinary story.

    Here was a priest who had been accused by 130 people of having abused them as minors. That was just an extraordinary number in and of itself. I was just struck by the fact that I haven't heard of the case.

    I said have we considered challenging that confidentiality order? Maybe we should do that. I said I didn't know what the laws of Massachusetts were. I was coming from Florida where things were generally more open.

    We decided to go into court. We thought that the chances were reasonably good and more important we thought that there was a public interest at stake here.


    So who are the kids?


    The Globe petition took months, but in November, a superior court judge agreed with the paper and ordered the Geoghan documents unsealed.

    The Church continued to stonewall, and appealed, and lost again. The Globe had what it needed.


    The key issue here was not that there had been a priest who had abused a lot of… a lot kids. There had been many cases like that around the country, as we all know. The issue here was that the Church apparently knew that this was a priest who had abused children, and yet reassigned him.


    Walter Robinson, a 30-year Globe veteran, now heads the paper's spotlight investigative team.

  • WALTER ROBINSON, Spotlight Reporter/Editor, Boston Globe:

    The documents to me were breathtaking in the extent to which they knew the cordiality of the correspondence between the Cardinal and Father Geoghan and the other bishops and Father Geoghan.

    Here's a fellow who they knew was accused of and had committed these acts against scores of kids, and the letters were, "Dear Jack, we hope you're coping with your problem."


    They were very sympathetic.


    They were very sympathetic. And I think what was stunning to us — what was not in the documents — virtually no reference to the children, to the victims.


    On January 6, The Globe published the first story in a series with the headline, "Church allowed abuse by priest for years."

    At the same time, the paper printed the phone number of a confidential call-in line, asking readers for further information. More than 2,000 e-mails and phone calls have been received so far, including many that contained allegations of abuse.

    In addition to the call-in line, The Globe has utilized so-called computer-assisted reporting in researching some of its dozens of stories.

    The paper's spotlight investigative team culled 18 years of annual Church directories to track over 900 active and retired priests. The team then created a database, which allowed it to match a target list of 100 priests with allegations of abuse. They honed in on priests who had been moved from a parish, sent on sick leave, or otherwise were removed from active service, and left "unassigned."


    That was the clue that the dimensions of the problem were as substantial as we had been led to believe, and then we set about to try and put a number on it.


    Initially the Church dismissed The Globe's reporting.


    They did not even care to know what our questions were.


    And Cardinal Law would not concede the problem. When he was publicly questioned at this January press conference, he chastised the press.


    As I have indicated, there is no priest or former priest working in this archdiocese in any assignment whom we know to have been responsible for sexual abuse. I hope you get that straight.


    The Church maintains that from the beginning, it has been trying to protect the confidentiality of victims and the accused priests.

    Father Christopher Coyne is the archdiocese spokesman.

  • FATHER CHRISTOPHER COYNE, Spokesman, Boston Archdiocese:

    Any kind of institution likes to protect itself from public scandal and controversy like this.

    Whether it's a religion or corporation or a civic institution likes to protect its self-from scandal, public scandal and controversy like this.

    RAY FLYNN, Former Ambassador to the Vatican: Good afternoon Boston. Thanks for joining us here today.


    Amidst the controversy, some prominent voices in Boston have accused The Globe of an anti-Catholic bias. Former Boston Mayor and Ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn, who has been at odds with The Globe in the past, hosts a radio talk show.

    Defending the Cardinal has become a mainstay of his broadcast.


    I think the icing on the cake here for some of the people who have been calling for his resignation is that if he resigns, then The Boston Globe can get their Pulitzer Prize.

    I think that's what this is all about. They have to bring him down in order for them to get their prize.


    Many of his callers agree with him.


    Good afternoon, ambassador. You hit the nail on the head once again.


    Thank you.


    I'll tell you, it's amazing, and people can't see it, that these people in the media have an agenda.

    They've had it for a long time. They never miss an opportunity to attack the Church.


    Father Coyne says the media have been guilty of overkill.


    At times it does appear as if stories are being kind of created.

    There is a certain kind of momentum going on here, so it's very difficult for any of us who are involved in the Church to get up every day and see these stories in the press, whether they're on the front page of the paper or front page of the "B" section. It's very wearing, and it does cast an awful cloud over all of us.


    But the Globe editors, who have run scores of readers' letters, say there is no story more important to their Catholic readers at this time.


    I think that a newspaper is a very powerful institution, and we should exercise our power in judicious ways, but we should not be afraid to exercise our power either.

    And this was an instance where we exercised it by going to court and by dispatching our reporters throughout the region, and I think that the results were largely beneficial.


    And the Church, though not happy with the coverage, has adopted a more forthcoming public relations strategy. Father Coyne:


    If we want to start pointing a finger in terms of like pointing blame at the way the story is going out, I think we have to start by pointing it right back at ourselves.

    We're the ones who created this story. If we had done what we're supposed to do as a Church, if we had lived the life that we're supposed to live as Christians, if we had not made the mistakes that we had made in terms of the way we've handled the story, then the media would not have had a story, and they would not, and we wouldn't be in this fix that we're in now.


    Meanwhile, The Globe's reporting has led papers around the country to investigate similar claims. And Church authorities, previously reluctant to even discuss the subject, have confirmed numerous cases of priestly misconduct.


    There's no story, no local story in my memory, in this city, that approaches this in the intensity of interest by readers.


    Editor Martin Baron says the Boston story is far from over.


    This is not just a Boston story. It is very much a national story, and in many ways a story of the entire Catholic Church. And we plan to stay on this story for as long as necessary.


    In Boston, the archdiocese has already taken an enormous emotional and financial hit. The Globe has estimated that the Church may eventually pay more than $100 million to settle dozens of pending sexual molestation claims against priests.