Out of the Spotlight: Does the Phoenix Deserve Credit for the Globe’s Scoop?

Kristen Lombardi of the Phoenix connected the dots in 2001. The Globe’s Spotlight Team debuted their series in 2002. Where's the confusion?

Illustration by Kyle Clauss

Illustration by Kyle Clauss

People forgo plenty of things in order to become journalists, chief among them sleep and independence from caffeine. What journos do fuss over, and with great fervor, is credit for their work. With the release of Spotlight, the star-studded early Oscar favorite chronicling the Boston Globe‘s award-winning investigation into sex abuse and subsequent coverups inside the Catholic Church, a 13-year-old debate over who deserves credit for breaking the story first has arisen again.

Kristen Lombardi, a BU alum, arrived at the Boston Phoenix in 2000 as a news and features reporter, following stints at the Brookline and Newton Tabs and the Phoenix’s sister publication in Worcester. In January 2001, Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, was named a defendant in a number of ongoing, under-the-radar cases involving pedophile priests, including one involving Father John Geoghan. Figuring the judge’s decision likely meant the victims had enough evidence to prove that knowledge of Geoghan’s abuse had stretched far enough up the Church hierarchy to implicate Cardinal Law, Phoenix editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar told Lombardi to start digging.

“[My editors] were convinced that the Globe or the Herald would do something with that,” Lombardi says. “But they didn’t. I did.”

She pored through court documents and spoke with victims, receiving ample pushback from the Church along the way. She looked at other sexual abuse cases involving Catholic priests across the country, and developed relationships with attorneys who specialized in such cases. Her first-ever investigative piece for the Phoenix, “Cardinal Sin,” ran in March 2001. The findings were damning, and the lede, a punch to the gut:

ASK MARK KEANE who orally raped him when he was a teenage boy, and he’ll answer: Father John Geoghan. Ask him who should bear the cross for this heinous act, and he’ll answer: Cardinal Bernard Law.

Law, Keane believes, had direct knowledge that Geoghan, who worked in the Archdiocese of Boston from 1962 to 1993, was molesting children. And Law, Keane alleges, didn’t just let the priest keep working; he allowed Geoghan to stay at parishes where he enjoyed daily contact with children — one of whom was Keane.

But even as Lombardi, then 30, chipped away at “Cardinal Sin” and seven followups, she knew the story was bigger than she could handle alone.

“When I was doing it, I was aware that I couldn’t do it all,” she says. “I was aware that there was a bigger story that I couldn’t tell because I didn’t have the resources. I was working at a small, scrappy alternative newspaper. I wasn’t working on a metropolitan daily with a gigantic staff. I had four colleagues.”

New editor Martin Baron arrived at the Globe in 2001 and, upon seeing an Eileen McNamara column on Boston’s pedophile priests that contained the phrase, “The truth may never be known,” assigned the Spotlight Team to scrub the case. “For Marty Baron, that statement is like waving a red flag,” says Walter Robinson, who led the Spotlight Team.

The Globe began its pursuit of thousands of pages of sealed court documents in September 2001, finding success two months later. The Spotlight Team’s series debuted with a two-part story on Geoghan in January 2002. The following year, the Globe received the Pulitzer Prize “for its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction, and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.”

“[The Globe] could’ve had it before we did,” Lombardi says. “There was a reason why they didn’t go after it. And there was a reason why they did go after it, I personally believe. And part of it is that they got a new editor who was from outside: Marty Baron. He didn’t have an allegiance, and he wasn’t intimidated by the power of the Church, and he was like, ‘Who cares if there’s a seal on these court records? Let’s go to court and argue there shouldn’t be.'”

“I wrote that in 2003,” Robinson says of idea that Baron served as the impetus for a reinvigorated effort at the Globe. “Everyone knew it. We had a new editor who came from Miami, in a state where everything is public.”

Media critic Dan Kennedy, now a journalism professor at Northeastern University, sat next to Lombardi at the Phoenix and still considers her the best reporter he’s ever worked with.

“I think that she advanced the Catholic sex abuse story in some really important ways. When the Globe started doing their reporting, they also advanced the story in some very important ways. The Pulitzer that the Globe won, when you look at the injustice they exposed, it was probably one of the most well-deserved Pulitzers ever awarded.”

“When the Globe’s series first came out, everybody at the Phoenix was upset about it. The very first story especially, because we felt like it very much was a duplicate of my work on Geoghan,” Lombardi says. “I can honestly say that we were very upset about it, because we felt like…all it takes is a sentence. That’s all it takes, is a sentence, to acknowledge that there was another Boston area reporter out there. That’s all it takes.”

The Globe‘s first story, “Church allowed abuse by priest for years,” makes no mention of the Phoenix’s earlier work. The Spotlight Team’s book Betrayal, published in 2002, credits Lombardi, and in a 2003 retrospective for Nieman Reports, Robinson wrote: “Only Kristen Lombardi at the weekly Boston Phoenix had written extensively about Geoghan’s victims and their belief that the church knew more than it had admitted.”

Robinson, who calls himself a “great admirer” of her work, says he also credits Lombardi whenever he speaks about the Globe‘s coverage of the case at investigative journalism conferences. Still, it’s that first story that remains a bitter pill for Lombardi.

“The Globe is seen by reporters who work elsewhere, but especially at the Phoenix at the time, as the paper that often likes to cover everything as if nobody else exists in Boston,” Lombardi says. “Boston’s not that big. The media market’s not that big. What’s wrong with being more collegial and acknowledging that a smaller outlet in your sphere has been doing really good work on this particular topic?”

In response, the Phoenix ran a full-page ad featuring both papers’ front pages containing their respective Geoghan stories, alongside the caption: “Some papers lead. Other papers follow.” In 2012, Ryan-Vollmar penned an open letter on Jim Romenesko’s popular journalism industry blog the day the Globe marked the 10th anniversary of their series with an interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley.

“The Globe’s work on this story was phenomenal, and they deserve perhaps 90 percent of the credit for blowing the sex abuse story wide open. But they continue to insist on taking 100 percent credit,” she wrote. “Not only does the Globe today fail to credit former Phoenix reporter Kristen Lombardi’s work, but it seems to take credit for the swarm of other stories on clergy sex abuse that popped up around the country.”

Though Romenesko gave Baron an opportunity to respond to her letter, he did not. When asked by Commonwealth if other reporters deserved recognition, Baron responded, “I don’t really have anything else to say.”

In an emailed statement to Boston, Spotlight Team editor Walter Robinson—played by Michael Keaton in the film—praised Lombardi’s work, yet maintained that it’s the Globe’s oeuvre that remains the definitive canon.

Many news organizations in Boston, including the Globe and the Herald, covered the allegations against John Geoghan starting in the mid-1990s. Many of those stories, including very good reporting by Kristen in 2001, focused on suspicions and accusations that the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law must have known about Geoghan’s crimes yet allowed him to have continued access to children.

Those were suspicions and allegations. They were not proof. Over five months starting on July 30, 2001, the Spotlight Team interviewed scores of victims of Geoghan and numerous other priests, obtained documents no other news organization had and prevailed in a court motion to unseal Geoghan’s personnel records.

In January, 2002, based on its reporting, the Globe published the first wave of 600 articles that proved conclusively that Cardinal Law and the Archdiocese had long enabled and covered up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children, not just by Geoghan, but by scores of other priests. The Spotlight Team’s reporting left no doubt about the Church’s premeditated complicity, and helped spark disclosures about the widespread abuse of children across the nation and around the world.

Robinson later added that while Lombardi had done more reporting on the case than anyone else had done prior, it was the Spotlight Team’s five months of reporting—which included interviews with Geoghan’s victims and others’, as well as 14 different documents that proved the “very well-founded convictions” and suspicions of Law’s complicity that he feels comprises the Phoenix‘s story. “Those two stories we did were based upon documents we obtained during our reporting that proved that Law knew that his bishops knew,” he says. “Those documents were a slam dunk about what the Archdiocese knew about Geoghan.”

Ryan-Vollmar, in an emailed statement to Boston, disagrees.

Until the Phoenix’s reporting, no Boston outlet had pulled together the full extent of the horror taking place within the Boston Archdiocese: Law’s knowledge of the abuse and his decision to keep pedophile priests employed, and the fact that it wasn’t the case of one bad priest, but many. The Phoenix’s reporting was so solid and convincing on these points that the Boston Herald took the extremely unusual step of calling for Law to come clean in an editorial, and cited the Phoenix reporting in its piece. The late David Brudnoy did the same on his well-regarded radio show. To say that Kristen’s reporting merely raised suspicions without proving anything shows a rather astonishing level of ignorance about her work.

“We were all so proud of what Kristen had done. I think we all wanted her to get as much glory and accolades as she could get, and I think that’s understandable,” says Kennedy, who attended a screening of Spotlight Thursday night at Northeastern with Robinson. “I’m not outraged about it by any means. I think what the Globe did was phenomenal. That said, I don’t have the same amount of direct involvement that Kristen does or that Susan does. If their passions are running higher than mine, that’s understandable.”

Peter Kadzis, who was the executive editor of the Phoenix at the time, noted in an email that though the Catholic Reporter, the Phoenix, and the Globe were all writing about the subject at the time, only the Reporter and the Phoenix credited each other’s work. “The Globe didn’t, and that was its prerogative. Meanwhile, life has gone on.”

“That’s a human impulse, you know? To feel anger or offense,” Lombardi says. “It’s a human impulse because this was my first story and I got really involved. It’s really hard not to get personally involved in these kinds of stories. People feel like you’re their therapist as a reporter, and they get really close to you. You want to make a difference in their lives. You want the story to make a difference for them, and it did. I understood the power of that, of giving a voice to the voiceless. It’s not a cliche. It’s the reason why I do what I do, pretty much. And I understood that power through this story for the very first time.”

Lombardi did meet with director Tom McCarthy, as well as screenwriter Josh Singer, while they did research for the screenplay, and is thanked in the credits. The Phoenix is briefly mentioned in Spotlight, when reporter Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, tries to convince attorney Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci, to talk to the Globe. Garabedian says he already spoke with the Phoenix, and Rezendes suggests that nobody reads it. The real-life Rezendes did not respond to a request for comment.

“You know what? That’s probably totally true in their eyes. That probably captures exactly what people thought,” Lombardi says. “Because this attitude I told you about, it was real. We felt like that’s the mentality. Not every Globe reporter feels that way, but I certainly think the Globe higher-ups have that attitude.”

Robinson says that in the early ’90s, the Globe regarded the Phoenix as its chief competition for political coverage. But as the now-defunct alt-weekly shifted its focus largely to arts and culture, Robinson says it lost readers on Morrissey Boulevard. He also points to digitization—in the early 2000s, the Globe had a considerably larger, more comprehensive web presence than the Phoenix. As a result, Robinson says the Spotlight Team didn’t know the Phoenix had written a word on the topic until a month and a half into the investigation.

“I can’t apologize for that. That’s just the way the system worked back then,” he says.

Now an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, Lombardi says she doesn’t plan on seeing Spotlight in theaters, though it’s not for any sour grapes—she hasn’t been to the movies since the birth of her three-year-old son. She said she’ll catch it on Netflix instead. In case she changes her mind, Robinson says he’ll buy her a ticket.

“This discussion around ‘credit’ is ridiculous in the context of what actually happened,” Ryan-Vollmar said in her email. “This story was going to come out one way or the other thanks to the survivors. The courage they showed in speaking out, and in putting their names to public accusations, is not something you see every day. They refused to be silenced, and they kept telling the truth until the world finally listened.”