"Spotlight" on Globe's Coverage of Church Abuse

The feature film "Spotlight" is based on the stories and reporters behind The Boston Globe's investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In advance of the Academy Awards this weekend, we revisit an interview with the Globe's Spotlight team about approaching and speaking with survivors of abuse, maintaining privacy during a national investigation and taking care of themselves during a difficult story.

In 2001, the Boston Globe began an extensive effort to chronicle and report the clergy abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. The series received a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Globe was honored, according to the Pulitzer website, "for its courageous, comprehensive coverage ... an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church."

Below is a Dart Center interview with Spotlight team members Sacha Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll, Kevin Cullen, Thomas Farragher, Stephen Kurkjian, Michael Paulson, Michael Rezendes, and Walter V. Robinson.

To view the Globe's entire series, see Spotlight Investigation.

Dart Center: How did you approach speaking with victims of sexual abuse in these cases?

Boston Globe: In the majority of cases, victims approached us. To explain: We began researching this issue in August 2001, and we published our first story actually, package of stories on the topic on January 6, 2002, followed by another package on January 7, 2002. A slew of follow-up stories came after that, as did another package of stories on January 31, 2002.

With each of those stories, and with many of the nearly 900 stories on clergy sex abuse that have since been published in the Globe, we included what we call our "tip box," which lists two phones numbers (one to reach a live reporter, one to leave a recorded confidential message) and an email address so readers could get in touch with us to offer information and comments. The message in the box was short and simple: "The Boston Globe Spotlight Team would like to hear from readers about this issue."

In the early months of our project, that tip box triggered such a torrent of phone calls and emails from across the country and even overseas that we had to hire a student intern to help us answer our telephones, which rang around-the-clock for weeks. If we let several hours go by without checking our answering machine or email, dozens of unanswered messages and emails would have piled up and I am referring here only to our general answering machine and email box, not our personal answering machines and email, which were also being flooded.

We have since lost count, but we estimate that we have heard from several thousand readers who contacted us by phone, letter and email to weigh in on this issue and provide information about abusive priests. The most common calls have been from victims, many of whom told us accounts of past abuse that they had never before told anyone not even their spouses or family members. So in these cases we mainly played the role of compassionate listener, rather than having to craft a delicate way to approach an abuse victim out of the blue.

However, during the research phase of our project, which began in August 2001, we had been in touch with several victims whom we had located through lawyers, public court records, and victim support groups. In most of those cases, those victims had agreed to speak with us and had been told in advance that we would be calling. So in those cases, we again had the benefit of not having to cold-call victims, in a sense.

DC: These cases involve another level of betrayal - a betrayal of men of faith - and also involved shunning in some cases by church members in the Catholic faith, as some victims and families of victims were accused of causing scandal in the church. Did you find you had to approach victims and their families differently than you have approached other victims of trauma because of this?

BG: The experience of having been shunned made many victims and their families even more willing to speak with us, because they were so angry and disappointed and disillusioned as a result of their poor treatment by the church. Then, after our stories began to run, many victims grew even angier, because they realized that the betrayal they had experienced was not an isolated event. If you had wondered whether the ostracism some victims and their families experienced made them reluctant to speak to us, I would say that was not the case; in fact, it made them more eager to share the indignities they had suffered.

DC: Because these cases of abuse involved so many people and was on a national scale, did it change how you covered the story in terms of sensitivity to the victims?

BG: Speaking daily with victims was a heavy and intense experience. It required a greal deal of delicacy and compassion. It also called for the basic listening and questioning skills employed by any reporter who is put in a position of interviewing a fragile person. One advantage, in a sense of, of speaking with such a huge number of victims and hearing so many accounts of sexual abuse having triggered downward spirals into depression and alcoholism is that we became informal experts, in a sense, of the often devastating consequences of abuse. And that made us more informed, more compassionate listeners. It also enabled us to write with authority about the tragic fallout that can result when a priest abuses a child.

DC: I noticed that there are two phone numbers on the Boston Globe Web site - one to report information on child abuse caused by a priest, and another that's for confidential messages. What part did the Boston Globe play in helping victims tell their stories, as more and more people came forward? Did the Globe take on some responsibility in giving the victims a forum in the community?

BG: As I mentioned above, we frequently ran a "tip box" with our stories in which we provided two phones numbers: one where readers could reach a live reporter, and one where readers could leave a confidential recorded message. Both lines served the same purpose, and either could be used to report an abusive priest, but some people were more comfortable talking to an answering machine than to a live reporter. The volume of calls that came into both those lines was staggering. So in that way the Globe played an enormous role in enabling victims to tell their stories.

Not every victim who called saw his or her story appear in the paper; in fact, most victims probably didn't see their stories appear in the paper, because space simply wouldn't allow it. In addition, we tried to focus on stories that involved Boston archdiocesan priests, stories that involved priests we knew to be serial molesters, stories that involved particularly egregious instances of abuse, and stories that involved negligence by top church officials and not all calls we received fit that profile. But many victims told us that even having the chance to tell their story to a reporter was a healing experience, whether or not their story ran in the paper.

I would note that until we published our tip box, finding victims especially victims who were willing to talk on the record had been challenging, because the historic stigma of clergy sex abuse made victims reluctant or unwilling to talk. But once we found several victims who agreed to speak on the record and their names were published in the Globe, other victims were emboldened to come forward.

DC: What privacy issues did you encounter, and were you able to cover the story within the parameters of these issues?

BG: Globe policy states that the identities of sexual abuse victims will not be published unless the victim permits it. So, in keeping with that policy, we promised anonymity to any victim who called us and requested it. That meant we sometimes included a victim's story, but not his or her name (or other personal identifying information), in a story, although we tried as often as possible to use on-the-record information and we encountered a surprisingly high number of victims who were willing to be publicly identified in the Globe. To us, that indicated that the stigma of clergy sex abuse was finally crumbling.

We took great care, however, to somehow corroborate victims' stories of abuse before we would publish the name of an allegedly abusive priest. If the name of an alleged abuser was published, that usually meant we had verified the allegation through a pending lawsuit, publicly settled lawsuit, confirmed private settlement, criminal charge, or church official. We did not publish rumor or innuendo or unverifiable information. Victims who called us with accounts of abuse did not automatically have their accounts published in the paper.

DC: How did you personally cope while covering these cases?

BG: As I said above, when we first began to publish our stories we were inundated with calls from victims. We routinely heard from adult men and women who shared with us deeply disturbing accounts of childhood sexual abuse, many of whom were in tears for much of the call. The calls were often lengthy, and they usually dealt with heavy, intense emotional issues. We quickly realized that we had been put in a counseling role of sorts that we had no training or experience to handle, and that realization prompted us to begin including the telephone number of a rape crisis number in our tip box.

Since we began this project in August 2001, many people have asked my colleagues and me if working on this story has been depressing. My answer has always been that the story doesn't make me depressed; it makes me angry. And anger becomes a motivator. An enormous wrong took place, and we have seen the human wreckage left behind the legions of bright, talented, articulate, attractive people whose lives were derailed by a sexual experience with a priest when they were children. The experience of talking with hundreds of victims and becoming aware of the aftermath of the abuse they suffered motivated us, I believe, to follow the story even more intensely.

DC: How did you handle it?

BG: There were days, I believe, when all four of us felt quite emotionally burdened by the conversations we had had with victims. But I think that, as reporters, we were able to maintain an objectivity that helped us handle the emotions triggered by this story. And, at least in my case, the feeling of anger I mentioned above helped me stay focused and left me determined to continue pursuing the story vigorously.

DC: Did the Boston Globe encourage any psychological support for the team of people covering these cases, or see it as a potential issue?

BG: Speaking daily with victims was, as I said above, a heavy and intense experience. It required a great deal of delicacy and compassion. It also called for the basic listening and questioning skills employed by any reporter who is put in a position of interviewing a fragile person. There were days, I believe, when all four of us felt quite emotionally burdened by the conversations we had had with victims. But I think that, as reporters, we were able to maintain an objectivity that helped us handle the emotions triggered by this story. And, at least in my case, the feeling of anger I mentioned above helped me stay focused and left me determined to continue pursuing the story vigorously. 

Click here to read The Boston Globe's Pulitzer prize-winning coverage, and click below to watch the Spotlight film trailer.


MORE Resources from the reporters

At a 2011 Dart Center workshop, reporter Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with NPR correspondent Elaine Korry and Center for Public Integrity staff writer Kristen Lombardi about what every journalist should know about interviewing another vulnerable group: victims of intimate partner violence.


At the same workshop, Pfeiffer also discussed violence, tragedy and the role of the media with Malcolm Astley, the father of Lauren Astley, who was murdered by her former boyfriend earlier that year.

Kristen Lombardi, a Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, has special expertise in the institutional coverup of sexual crimes. In 2003, as a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix, she first broke the story of how Boston’s Catholic Church hierarchy covered up for a serial sexual offender in the priesthood. 

Six years later, Lombardi and colleague Kristin Jones published a wide-ranging series with the Center for Public Integrity revealing a disturbing culture of silence surrounding rape on college campuses. Lombardi spoke with the Dart Center's Bruce Shapiro about the journalistic challenges in documenting what the series calls a “culture of secrecy.”

I thought I would be prepared for it because I have interviewed a lot of victims. But these were really young victims. And I was not prepared. The difference between them and church victims was decades. The church victims had years to process what had happened to them. They were emotionally more mature. That made a huge difference in their ability to open up and to be able to handle what they were feeling when they were reliving their stories.

With the student victims, people fell apart on me after the fact. I take great pride in the compassion and care that I exhibit. I try to be very thoughtful as an interviewer. I try very hard not to retraumatize. But I was really unprepared for how much people would flip out. People dropped out. People have disappeared. I have one victim who has an incredible story who disappeared, who won’t respond. Also, I took it really personally. I took a lot of it really personally, and I was surprised by that.

Click here to read the full Q&A.


A few months later, Lombardi visited the Dart Center to speak about the knowledge, methods and ethics reporting on this topic requires:


Click here for more Dart Center resources on covering sexual violence.