Baring the Cross

The voice on the phone was familiar. Michael Rezendes recognized the catch in the caller's throat, the tortured rush of words describing what a priest had done to him two decades earlier. It was the fourth time the man had called the Boston Globe reporter, and he still refused to identify himself. Even after all these years, it was too much to attach his name to what had happened. All Rezendes could do was let the man have his catharsis, gently direct him to counseling, and take the next emotional call.

“He had never told anybody about it before. Not his parents, not his wife. He just wanted someone to talk to,” recalls Rezendes, whose own voice conveys the intense experience of talking to the flood of victims who have called him and his colleagues since the Globe opened the dam on the sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

That story is still playing out. The wave of allegations and lawsuits that began in Boston has yet to crest. Princes of the church have humbled themselves before irate parishioners. Even the pope has been forced to address the long-taboo issue, albeit cryptically. “If a story can change the world, they changed the world,” says Alex Jones, director of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

The way the Globe's Spotlight investigative team changed the world is a primer on a kind of journalism that isn't practiced enough any more. Sharp instincts, smart use of court records, and detective work worthy of a Hollywood script all played a part. Yet the reporters say the chief contributing factor was the victims.

“Virtually all of the stories were made possible largely because people picked up the phone and said, 'I want you to know what happened to me,'” says Walter Robinson, editor of the Spotlight team.

The anguish in those calls has tempered any elation in the newsroom. There are no high-fives, no hint of smugness at trumping Cardinal Bernard Law. Talk of a Pulitzer, which would be the Globe's first in investigative reporting since 1984, is taboo, even though journalists outside the paper widely consider it a foregone conclusion.

“Is there satisfaction that we were able to shine a bright light in a dark corner? Sure,” says Robinson. “But it has also been pretty sobering. This is not a happy story.”

It's also a story that almost wasn't.

On Sunday, July 29, 2001, the Globe's Eileen McNamara wrote a column noting that a judge had sealed documents in a civil suit against the archdiocese and John Geoghan, an ex-priest accused of abusing more than 100 boys. If the cases were settled, McNamara complained, details about the archdiocese's culpability might never come to light. (The Boston Phoenix had actually reported this first, nearly four months earlier.)

McNamara's column caught the eye of the Globe's new editor, Martin Baron, who presided over his first editorial meeting the very next day. Baron, who came from the Miami Herald, was used to the sunshine of Florida's open-records laws and the aggressive investigative journalism they inspired. No Massachusetts paper had challenged the judge's orders, about seven months earlier, that the documents be sealed — the Globe included. Baron thought it should.

The Spotlight team also was directed to start sniffing around. The team was still relatively new. Robinson, 56, who has held 16 different jobs during his 30 years at the Globe, had been Spotlight editor for a year and a half. Rezendes, 47, had come over at around the same time from the State House; Sacha Pfeiffer, 30, after covering the courts. Matt Carroll, 47, the group's self-described computer geek, was the veteran, with five years on the Spotlight team. Stephen Kurkjian, 58, joined up in January.

There is little pretense about the Spotlight team. Its low-ceilinged home one floor beneath the Globe's sprawling newsroom is affectionately called “the Cave.” It has all the ambiance of an auto insurance office. The metal desks have the battered look of hand-me-downs. The worn gray carpeting could have come from a remnants sale at Home Depot. Two windows offer a scenic view of a parking lot and the Southeast Expressway. Team members dress to fit their surroundings, in jeans and sweatshirts.

It was this humble assemblage that was to take on the Catholic Church in Boston — a daunting task, given the newspaper's history. The Globe was founded in 1872 on a strategy of competing with the six existing local papers by developing a readership among the burgeoning Irish-Catholic population — campaigning to allow priests into local hospitals to deliver last rites, for instance. As the years passed, the newspaper and the archdiocese settled into their roles as two of the most powerful institutions in the city.

But the desegregation crisis of the 1970s created a divide. The Globe's stance in favor of forced busing drew an angry response from opponents in heavily Catholic blue-collar neighborhoods. Some saw the Globe's more strident editorials as anti-Catholic. Accusations of Catholic-bashing reached a peak in 1992 over the Globe's coverage of James Porter, a former priest convicted of sexually abusing 28 children. Cardinal Law angrily complained of sensationalism. “We call down God's power on the media,” Law said at the time, “particularly the Globe.”

The antagonism of the church was the least of the problems for the Spotlight team as it began its investigation. There was little to go on: basic details of the Geoghan case, the almost passing admission by Law during a news conference that he had known of Geoghan's pedophilia, rumors that cases against other priests had been quietly settled.

The reporters decided to track priests to see if pedophiles had been simply transferred from parish to parish, as was widely rumored. They gathered up nearly two decades' worth of the Boston Catholic Directory, an annual publication the size of a suburban yellow pages. Crammed between ads from local car dealers and mortuaries were lists in tiny type of nearly 1,000 priests and their assignments.

A pattern quickly became apparent. Many priests were shown to be on “sick leave” or “awaiting assignment” for a year or two, then sometimes reassigned to a new parish. Could “sick leave,” the reporters wondered, be a euphemism for pedophilia?

Geoghan fit the pattern. Rezendes remembers his shock when he saw that Geoghan, who had repeatedly been shown on “sick leave,” had been sent to St. Julia's parish in Weston in 1984 to supervise the altar boys. “It was,” Rezendes says, “a moment of horror and revelation.”

A database was built following the trail of priests who had done time in “sick leave” limbo. “It was tedious work, and we weren't even sure what we were putting together,” Pfeiffer recalls. “It wasn't until after people started calling us that we saw the list was a very accurate predictor of problem priests.”

Spotlight reporters also tracked down a few documents that escaped the judge's secrecy order. But they found that paperwork that should have been publicly available was missing from court files for reasons that are still not clear. The paper demanded that the records be returned. Now it had the names of some victims who had agreed to confidential settlements with the archdiocese. They started making calls.

It wasn't easy. “So many said they couldn't talk,” Pfeiffer says. “They were terrified that they would violate their agreement with the archdiocese and be dragged into court. People were paranoid, embarrassed, and ashamed.”

Some did talk, though. What they said helped the reporters understand the magnitude of the story. It wasn't just Geoghan. Dozens of other priests were implicated.

The series' first story ran on Sunday, January 6. It used the archdiocese's own internal documents to show how Law and others knew of Geoghan's serial sexual abuse but continued to put him in contact with young boys.

The response was immediate. Forty voice-mail calls were waiting for Spotlight reporters the next morning. The number would swell to more than 2,000 calls and e-mails. For days the team did little more than hear out anguished callers.

“You'd talk to all these sobbing adult men and you'd realize the extent to which a person's life can be destroyed by this,” says Pfeiffer. “People who were talented and articulate were horribly damaged by something that happened when they were 13 or 14.”

Robinson said the unrelenting descriptions of forced masturbation and sodomy, of lives ruined or lived in silent shame, became too much for his reporters. “We're trained listeners, but we're not counselors,” he says. The Globe began running the phone number of a rape crisis center with its stories.

The torrent of calls pointed the reporters to allegations against other priests and details of other settlements. The story had grown far beyond anything the Spotlight team had expected.

“If a year ago someone came in and told us that more than 90 priests had been implicated for sexual abuse and that the archdiocese paid $30 million in settlements, we would have kicked them out,” says Pfeiffer. “A year ago it would have sounded like one of those wacky tips.”

There was little accusation of Catholic-bashing this time. “Taking on the Catholic Church in this town is a tough act. But their work was so persuasive, no one could really criticize them,” says Harvard's Alex Jones. This time when Law called a news conference in response to the Globe's reporting, it was to contritely answer hard questions and apologize repeatedly. In the Globe's newsroom, all activity halted as reporters and editors watched on TV. “It was dead silence,” recalls Baron. “Everybody realized what we had done as a newspaper and the enormity of what it meant.”

The paper had by now won its case to get the Geoghan files opened, but desperate appeals by the archdiocese delayed their release until late January, when the long-awaited court records arrived in four bulging cardboard boxes. Racing against a deadline, the team divided up the 10,000 pages. Reading them was a literal headache. Most of the letter-sized sheets contained four pages each, reduced in size to fit. The reporters marked the most important documents with yellow sticky notes and handed them over to Carroll, who created a timeline of the events.

Despite their months of research, they were stunned by what they read. “I thought I had an idea about the scope of this thing, but it was shocking when you saw these banal notes going back and forth and you realized who it is they're talking about,” says Carroll.

The worn metal desks were soon stacked deep with documents. The weak daylight streaming through the windows became dusk, then night. “I don't think we got out of here until sometime past midnight,” says Rezendes.

It was the first of many late nights covering a story that shows no signs of slowing. The Spotlight reporters, now finishing a book on the scandal, have had little time to reflect. If anything, they still seem stunned at how what they thought would be another routine assignment has created shock waves all the way to the Vatican.

Robinson tries to put it in smaller, human terms. “The hope is that there will be children somewhere that will not have to suffer the kind of abuse we have written about here,” he says. “That's the real satisfaction.”