By Sarah Larson (The New Yorker)
December 8, 2015
Since seeing the movie “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe investigation of sexual abuse and coverups in the Catholic Church, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and the questions it raises—about how far institutions will go to protect themselves, about who we listen to and protect, about who and what we ignore, about the power of disclosure and even conversation. It begins with a portrait of institutionalized secrecy—at a police station in Boston in 1976, where cops, a bishop, and an A.D.A. are keeping a molestation accusation quiet—and shows us the process of how the truth came to be revealed. Spotlight, the Globe’s investigative team, published its first story in its series, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” on January 6, 2002; in the next year, it published over six hundred more, using the Church’s own documents to document extensive and almost systemic abuse by clergy.
Recently, I went to the Globe offices and talked to three of the team’s journalists, Walter (Robby) Robinson (Michael Keaton in “Spotlight”), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and I called their former editor, Martin (Marty) Baron, now the editor of the Washington Post, to ask about their experiences with the story. It begins with Baron’s arrival at the Globe from his previous job at the Miami Herald. He was an outsider—“an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” as a character in the movie puts it—whose perspective helped him confront what others could not or would not.
Baron told me that before he got to the Globe, he knew little about the clergy sexual-abuse story. He also knew little about Boston. “I knew virtually nobody at the paper and virtually nobody in town,” he said. Copies of the Globe were shipped to him in Miami before his move. While reading them, he saw an article about Father John Geoghan, who had been accused of abusing as many as eighty-four kids. “That was in the Metro section,” he told me. “And I was struck that I hadn’t heard about the case.” The Sunday before his first day, Eileen McNamara published a column in which she noted that the plaintiffs’ attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, had accused Cardinal Bernard F. Law, of the Boston archdiocese, of knowing about Geoghan’s behavior, “and yet reassigning him, notwithstanding the serial abuse,” Baron said. The archdiocese’s lawyers denied it. “And at the end of the column, she said something to the effect of ‘The truth may never be known, because the documents are sealed.’ I was really struck by that.”
In Florida the previous year, Baron had made a stubborn, startling push for another important truth: the actual ballot numbers, via independent recount, in the Bush vs. Gore election. At the Globe, Baron said, his first day’s editorial meeting was much as it was depicted in “Spotlight.” “We went around the table and people mentioned their stories,” he said. “And I asked them about Eileen’s column and said, ‘One side’s saying one thing, we have another side saying something else. Isn’t there a way we can get at the truth?’ And people noted that the documents were under seal. I said I knew that, and I don’t know the laws of Massachusetts, but in Florida we might have wanted to go to court to unseal the documents. Had we thought of doing that? And there was dead silence in the room. I didn’t quite know how to respond.”
In “Spotlight,” that silence is explained: everyone would see it as the Globe suing the Catholic Church. Fifty-three per cent of the subscribers are Catholic, the publisher tells him. “I’ll think they’ll be interested,” Baron says. Baron is planning to meet Cardinal Law the following week, and the publisher suggests he not mention it to him.
In Boston, I sat in a conference room with Robinson, now an editor-at-large; Pfeiffer, a columnist and reporter, back at the Globe after seven years at WBUR, the Boston NPR station; and Rezendes, who is still on the Spotlight team. All three have a presence that conveys both compassion and precision; all three were brought up Catholic. Robinson has a calm focus and an unhurried manner, and he makes occasional jokes. Rezendes is thoughtful and intense. (Ruffalo has described him as having “an inner motor that really is cooking—as opposed to mine, which is usually sleepy.”) Pfeiffer talks quickly, efficiently, like a podcast played at 1.5x speed. (McAdams’s otherwise Pfeiffer-like performance doesn’t attempt this, out of respect for an audience trying to keep up.)
“I had twelve years of Catholic education,” Robinson said. “Including four years right there. My friends say I haven’t come far in life.” He pointed. We were sitting in front of a large paned window that overlooked Morrissey Boulevard and a brick building beyond it—Boston College High. “As a kid, I was an altar boy,” he said. “Now I look back and I feel blessed. I say, thank God nobody ever laid a hand on me.”
I asked what they had heard about sexual abuse in the Church before working on the investigation. Not much, they said. Like most, they considered it to be individual cases about individual priests. “This is pre-Internet,” Robinson said. “You may recall this from the film. When our visitor Phil Saviano”—the leader of SNAP, a survivors’ network for people abused by priests—“mentions the Gauthe case, we didn’t know. Back in the day, if there was a case in New Orleans, and there was another big case in Dallas, unless the New York Times or The New Yorker or CBS News descended upon that story and did it nationally, how would the rest of us have known about it?” The relative isolation of that era helped keep things quiet, made it harder for people to connect the dots. “So in a way, the Church was more protected. The bishops and the cardinals said, ‘Well, this is one aberrant priest.’ And they actually said this—‘We’re no different than the Methodists or the Lutherans or the Boy Scouts.’ ”
“That’s what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said,” Rezendes said. “That the percentage of abusers in the Catholic Church was no greater than the percentage of abusers in the general population.”
Robinson said, “So when we got the assignment, as an investigative unit, to look into the case of one priest who had eighty-four lawsuits against him, and a lot of speculation—how could they not have known what he was up to?—we took that on as ‘Find out about the one priest.’ ”
“Face value,” Pfeiffer said.
“And within days, in different ways, one of which is portrayed in the movie, our meeting with Phil Saviano, all of a sudden we realized that it was some much larger number. And the much larger number we thought of was a tiny fraction of what it ended up being.”
Judge Constance M. Sweeney ordered the release of additional documents on the Geoghan case in January, 2001. Robinson said, “When we started to get the documents, the thousands and thousands of pages of documents—it was how many pages on Geoghan? Ten thousand pages?”
“Including depositions,” Rezendes said.
“I wanted to write a lede, and I was voted down by probably everybody, about what was not in the documents,” Robinson said. “I managed to slip it into the fourth paragraph. What was not in the documents was any indication anywhere of concern for the children who had been harmed. Not anywhere. It was all about protecting the reputation of the Church, and then, in parens, keeping it secret. It was always about the secrecy. If the crimes of the priest were mentioned, they were often referred to as ‘sins,’ for which the priest had repented and been forgiven. With no sophisticated understanding, at a time when there clearly should have been, that these were A) criminal acts and B) criminal acts of a type that recur again and again.”
Pfeiffer nodded. “I think this is totally key, that they really did view it as a sin to be forgiven and not a crime to be dealt with in the criminal-justice system,” she said. “It’s almost as if they felt like it was this innocent outlet.” She mentioned a conversation about John Geoghan that she’d had with a priest who worked in a retirement home. “This priest said to me, very lightly, ‘We all knew that Jack fooled around with little boys.’ And I just thought, What kind of euphemism is that? Fooled around? Another priest said to me, ‘We thought we were maintaining our celibacy vow if we fooled around with boys and not girls.’ ”
“There was no appreciation whatsoever of the impact on a child’s life or development,” Rezendes said.
“Zero,” Pfeiffer said. “And I think that’s one thing that’s still unclear. Does the Church get it? Do they get how it totally affects you the rest of your life? That you can almost never move beyond it?” Again and again, Pfeiffer said, the reporters talked to abuse survivors who seemed to be “locked in time based on something that happened when they were children or teen-agers.” If a person’s first encounter with sex was at a formative age and with a priest, she said, “it kind of wrecked them in a way from they could never recover from, or that they still struggle to recover from, at age forty, fifty, sixty.”
The idea of being locked in time reminded me of an idea that “Spotlight” had raised: that many priests are psychosexually stunted, on the emotional level of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. “That was one of Richard Sipe’s findings,” Rezendes said. Sipe, an expert in clergy sexual abuse, was an important resource in the investigation. “He, of course, had been a celibate priest himself for many years, and a psychotherapist for priests. And you can see how it happens. People, boys, used to go into the seminary in junior high school, and so were essentially deprived normal sexual development, important to any human being.”
Sipe estimated that six per cent of priests were sexually abusive; what the Spotlight reporters found, in a diocese of twenty-two hundred priests, was that some two hundred were abusive—a figure closer to ten per cent. “So he was criticized vociferously, and he was lowballing it,” Rezendes said.
In the past few decades, when priests have been accused of abuse, they have often been sent to treatment centers run by the Church. “You could send them to a treatment center and then have legal-slash-medical justification for sending them to another parish,” Rezendes said. Often, the pastor at the next parish wasn’t told about the abuse accusations. Rezendes said, “Some of the pastors didn’t know, and they were devastated when they found out.”
The first stories in the series included a telephone number at the Globe that people could call to report additional clergy sexual abuse, and survivors came forward in droves. More documents came to light, and the story grew and grew. “It kept tentacling,” Pfeiffer said. “Ben Bradlee, Jr.”—then the assistant managing editor, played by John Slattery in the movie—“once we got all these personnel files, he started saying, ‘We can’t just do these priest-du-jour stories anymore.’ There were horrific stories in the files. But at some point you just stop writing about individual stories. We began looking at larger issues. Why did it happen? What was the role of the laity or the lack of the role of the laity? What’s the psychology of the priests? Why did there seem to be more boys and men coming forward than girls and women?” (Some reasons: priests had access to boys that they didn’t have to girls, in church, in their homes, on camping trips; and, chillingly, because more boys were targeted, in part because they were less likely to talk. Poor families were targeted, too: mothers who needed help, children who needed care.)
Robinson said that as the story developed, sometimes they’d get information about a priest that, if they’d learned about it six months earlier, would have warranted a big page-one story. “One of them was about this priest who was in charge of the novitiate, the young high-school girls who become nuns,” he said. “He basically told them that he was Christ on Earth and they would have their sexual encounters with him and therefore achieve their communion with God that way.” Pfeiffer found him, and he answered the phone. “Her side of the conversation, for about forty-five minutes, was one of the most extraordinary interviews that I’ve ever heard,” Robinson said.
“He acknowledged everything in completely calm detail,” Pfeiffer said. In her piece, the priest, Robert V. Meffan, says, “What I was trying to show them is that Christ is human and you should love him as a human being. Don’t think he’s up there and he’s spiritual and he’s not human and physical. He’s human, he’s physical.… I felt that by having this little bit of intimacy with them that this is what it would be like with Christ.”
Pfeiffer said to Robinson, “Tell your Maine story.”
Robinson paused. “It’s hard for me to tell this,” he said. “An eighty-seven-year-old man from Millinocket, Maine, who was a great-grandfather, called to tell me about how he had been abused at the age of twelve. I was the first person he had ever told. It had happened in 1926. And he called in January of 2002 to tell me how it had just—he had been troubled his whole life about it. I thought, three-quarters of a century of living with this. He was one of those who thought he was the only one.” Many victims thought the same thing.
Pfeiffer said, “As a society, we’re so open about sexuality today that I think people can forget what it was like in the forties, fifties, sixties. No one talked about sex, no one knew anything, it was shameful. I’ve talked to several men, who, all these decades later, who would say, ‘I was so horrified by what was happening when I was being abused, but my body was acting like I enjoyed it—does that mean I’m gay?’ This is decades later. And of course in that time you don’t want to be gay. What did that make you in society? People were afraid. Here we were in the two-thousands and people were saying, ‘Am I gay because of what happened to me and what my body did when I was twelve?’ That’s heartbreaking.”
Pfeiffer said that the survivors who spoke to them in the very beginning were especially brave. “The few who were willing to tell their stories were the ones who were risking ostracism, shame, stigma. But that was what empowered other people to say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t just me?’ And then the phones began ringing off the hook.”
In a scene in “Spotlight,” an abuse survivor tells Pfeiffer that he was “molested,” and Pfeiffer, very kindly, says, “Joe, I think that language is going to be so important here.” She wants him to say exactly what the priest did.
Pfeiffer said to me, “I am so glad that the filmmakers included that, because that was my huge mantra all along: ‘Molest’ is more than just a six-letter word. It’s so generic, it’s so sterile. And it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, molest, that’s terrible.’ Well, that could range from you’re in the front seat with the priest having ice cream, and he slips his hand up your shorts, to kids that got raped. You know? It started with the priest sleeping next to you at the campsite, and the next night it moved on to something else. We wanted people to understand how this can progress, how this can happen. We did a story about this kid who basically had been groomed by a priest, and he went back repeatedly with this priest. And I had a guy who called me and went back and said, ‘There’s absolutely no way that that could have happened. If that kid kept going back, then at some level he wanted it to happen.’ He told me this story about how he was swimming in this quarry in Boston, and ‘a naked guy came out of the woods and flashed us, and we knew to run away.’ But a naked guy coming out of a bush is not a priest who befriends your family. Who over the course of years cultivates you and grooms you. So we wanted people to understand: here’s how insidious it is, here’s how it happens, and here’s the range of horrors. Because depending on what happened, sometimes that was a pretty serious crime. Sometimes that was rape. Depending on what information we got, some priests went to jail. And the details mattered on that.”
One of the Spotlight stories involved a complicated situation of abuse and relationship: Timothy Lambert, a New Jersey priest who had been abused, as a youth, by a priest who was perhaps the most important male figure in his life, who, Rezendes wrote in 2002, “convinced him that he was every bit as worthy as his classmates, despite his alcoholic father.” The priest had also befriended, and abused, Lambert’s brother.
Rezendes said, “What was significant to us in that story was not only the abuse, and the notion of a priest accusing another priest of abuse, but the fact that the bishop in that case was essentially not giving the priest the time of day.”
I asked how they dealt with hearing all of these stories.
Pfeiffer said, “We often said we were felt like grief counselors who were not trained to be grief counselors.”
Rezendes said, “It was rough, quite honestly.”
Pfeiffer said, “These were calls that required patience and compassion. Robbie, your wife said—”
Robinson said, “My wife, who’s a nurse, said we all had P.T.S.D.”
After a year and a half, they turned to another investigative story and let the daily reporters cover the Church. The next Spotlight investigation concerned financial corruption in charitable organizations. “It was a story that required staying in the office and not talking on the phone and reading 990 tax returns,” Rezendes said. “And I remember sitting at my desk and reading a tax return and being very, very grateful that I was looking at some numbers and I didn’t have to hear another devastating story about someone whose life was destroyed by a priest who had betrayed him.”
Robinson said, “Not to make light of that in any way, but this was a year or two before there were improvements in P.D.F.s.” Many of the tax returns were hundreds of pages long, he said, and every page was sideways. “We’d be walking around like this.” He stood up, tilted his head to one side, and walked. They all laughed, remembering it vividly, and talked about that story for a minute, fired up about the fraud they’d discovered. Robinson said, “There’s a lesson for any journalist: any iconic institution needs some scrutiny.”
Rezendes said, “Wherever institutions are operating in secrecy, and people aren’t accountable, you’re likely to find wrongdoing. The Church is literally a secret institution. It doesn’t have the reporting requirements of a corporation or a nonprofit. It doesn’t file tax returns. They just don’t have any disclosure requirements at all. And they’re protected in large part by the First Amendment.”
Pfeiffer said, “Institutions that seem virtuous—nonprofits, religious organizations—tend to get a pass.”
Rezendes said, “If there’s a bottom-line lesson, it’s the old adage ‘Question authority.’ ”
Pfeiffer said, “This is absolutely an example of what happens when for decades people didn’t question authority. We’ve all talked about this, because we were all raised Catholic. We understand the deference the Church got. I had a grandmother who always had a rosary in her pocket, a mom who wanted to be a nun. When you’ve grown up in that kind of family, you understand how they wouldn’t ask questions. After the stories ran, my late grandmother”—whose character appears in the movie—“said, ‘We all thought the priests were little gods.’ And I remember thinking, And that’s how this happened. You didn’t think they could do anything wrong, and if you suspected they did, you wouldn’t ask questions.”
In the movie, the revelations of the Spotlight investigation make Pfeiffer too uneasy to keep going to Mass with her grandmother. I asked how her grandmother reacted in real life. “She was shocked and saddened, but she stuck with the Church till the day she died,” Pfeiffer said. “Some people left the Church; others tried to change it from within, like the group Voice of the Faithful; others loved their parish, they loved their pastor, and they sort of said, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ and they kept going to Mass.”
Cardinal Law resigned in 2002, after a storm of public outrage. Powerful Catholic charities and laypeople sided against him; fifty-eight priests signed a letter demanding that he quit. (The Vatican then gave him a distinguished position in Rome; he is now retired.) In the past decade plus, a great many stories of clergy sexual abuse have come to light in cities worldwide. “Betrayal,” the Globe’s book about the scandal, says, “In 2014 the Vatican said that it had defrocked 848 priests worldwide for sexual abuse between 2004 and 2013, and that 2,572 clerics had been disciplined for abuse violations.” Policies have changed and priests have been punished, but bishops, for the most part, have not.
I asked the reporters about Baron, whose leadership had encouraged them to crack the story open. “Spotlight” has reunited them. They talked about him fondly—his clarity of purpose, fearlessness, sense of values, deep commitment to investigative journalism. Liev Schreiber had spent only two hours with him, they said, but captured his manner perfectly. I asked whether Schreiber’s understatedness was accurate, the very-dry dryness that almost seemed like humor. (“I think they’ll be interested.”)
“Marty is known for having a dry wit, although it comes out more now than then,” Pfeiffer said. “He’s a different person now. There’s a slightly softer, gentler Marty.”
“We warmed him up,” Robinson said. At a film-festival screening of “Spotlight,” during a standing ovation for the journalists, Baron had been the most choked up of any of them.
“He hugs now,” Pfeiffer said.
I told them that “Spotlight” had got me thinking about who we listen to and why. Baron had caused the Globe to listen to the abuse survivors in a more concerted way, and to publish their stories; that in turn got the priests, the laity, the bishops, and law enforcement to listen, as well as countless other survivors, many of whom came forward. Now “Spotlight” is advancing the conversation further. Investigative journalism, Rezendes and Pfeiffer said, allows for acute and comprehensive listening: reporters have the time and budget to engage with sources in a way that daily beat reporting doesn’t afford. And “Spotlight” had given them a good opportunity to evangelize for investigative journalism.
Rezendes said, brightly, “The L.A. Times recently announced that it was forming a local investigative team. I can’t say that came directly because of the movie, but the timing is certainly interesting.”
On my way out, Rezendes gave me a tour of the Globe library—the vast collection of clip files that the journalists consult, the photograph archives, the spiral staircase seen in the movie. Before I left, we talked about Pope Francis and his often disappointing response to the crisis, as well as the Church’s inflexible positions on the celibacy requirement, women in the clergy, contraception, homosexuality, and so on. I told Rezendes a theory I’d heard from the comedian and childhood-rape survivor Barry Crimmins: that Pope Francis is the Church’s way of changing the conversation without changing the Church. Rezendes looked thoughtful. “That makes some sense,” he said.
As I rode out of the parking lot, I looked back at the Globe’s huge front windows and saw its printing press, whirring away, as the sun began to set. It gave me a rush of feeling like the one I had toward the end of “Spotlight,” when the January 6th papers print and the Globe’s green trucks roll out for delivery: secrets converted to revelations, information made physical and delivered to the world.
Marty Baron had been thinking about listening, too. The next morning, on the phone, he said, “I hope that ‘Spotlight’ will cause us all to listen to people who are essentially voiceless, and listen to them closely.” Beyond that, he said, “I would hope that it would cause editors and owners to rededicate themselves to investigative journalism. And I would hope that it would cause the public to understand more fully the kinds of resources that are required to do it.”
One last question occurred to me: How was Baron’s actual meeting with Cardinal Law? In “Spotlight,” the meeting highlights Baron’s role as an outsider: Law encourages friendliness between the Globe and the Church, and Baron says that a paper functions best when it works alone. Baron told me, “I went out to meet him; it was part of meeting people in the community. I forget exactly how it came about. I got lost getting there”—MapQuest was involved—“so I was an hour late. I didn’t even know you call it his ‘residence.’ I landed on the property and asked where his office was.” They talked for a bit. “Frankly, he obviously knew that I was Jewish, because he mostly talked about the Middle East,” Baron said. “He brought it up. It was just basic chitchat. As we were walking out—this is not exactly the way it was in the movie—he went to the bookshelf and he pulled off the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He gave me the book, and he said, ‘This is what we believe.’ The book that’s in the movie is the book that he gave me. The same physical book. They offered to give it back to me, but I decided I didn’t need it.”