by the investigative staff of the Boston Globe
In June 2001, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the longtime Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, used a routine court filing to make an extraordinary admission: seventeen years earlier he had given Rev. John J. Geoghan a plum job as parochial vicar of an affluent suburban parish, despite having been notified just two months previously that Geoghan was alleged to have molested seven boys.
For the investigative staff of the Boston Globe, that document was a turning point: a story about a priest who was accused of molesting children was now a story about a bishop who protected that priest. The document, and a defense offered in late July by the cardinal’s lawyer asserting that physicians had cleared Geoghan for ministry, set off a lengthy investigation by the Globe’s Spotlight Team, which set out to determine whether the Geoghan case was an anomaly or part of a pattern.
The troubling answer to that question—dozens of Boston-area priests had molested minors, and in too many cases bishops had known about the abuse but failed to remove the priests from their jobs—was revealed in a series of stories published in early 2002 that has triggered the most serious crisis to confront the Catholic Church in years.
The Globe’s reporting, and the events it set off, led to the writing of Betrayal, which is the story of priests who abused the children in their care, victims whose lives were shattered at the hands of those priests, bishops who failed to prevent the abuse, and laypeople who rose up in anger.
"Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people have come forward with horrific childhood tales about how former priest John J. Geoghan allegedly fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree through a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes," began the Spotlight Team’s first article on the subject, published in January 2002. "Almost always, his victims were grammar school boys. One was just 4 years old."
Over the next four months, the Globe ran nearly 300 stories about clergy sexual abuse. Though the problem had been widely known nationally and sporadically written about since the mid-1980s, the Globe’s reporting used the Church’s own documents to demonstrate that high-ranking officials had repeatedly put the welfare of their priests ahead of that of the children in their care.
In the Geoghan case a succession of three cardinals and many bishops over thirty-four years had failed to place children out of Geoghan’s reach, sending the priest compassionate letters even as they moved him from parish to parish, leaving a trail of victims in his wake.
The first Globe stories struck a nerve. Catholics were furious and felt betrayed. Cardinal Law apologized, and in the ensuing days and weeks, he agreed to turn over the names of all priests, past and present, accused of sexually abusing minors, even though such reporting was not then required under Massachusetts law. He announced a zero-tolerance policy, vowing to oust any priest against whom a credible allegation was lodged, and promised new efforts to reach out to victims.
But the dam had burst. Many Catholics called for Law’s resignation and began withholding contributions to the Church. State legislators passed a bill requiring clergy to report allegations of sexual abuse to secular authorities. Prosecutors began issuing arrest warrants for priests.
This story began, as all stories do, with a group of reporters trying to answer a set of questions. The Globe’s Spotlight Team—editor Walter V. Robinson and reporters Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michael Rezendes—set out to discover how many priests in Boston had molested children, and how much the Church had known about the abuse.
Within a few days, the reporters discovered that Geoghan was merely the most well known example of a much deeper problem. The Archdiocese of Boston had quietly settled claims of abuse against multiple priests in recent years. Most of the claims had been settled in private, with no public record. It was an agreeable arrangement: the Church got to keep the ugly truth under wraps; shame-filled victims, having no clue that there were so many others, were able to protect their privacy. Victims’ lawyers received a third or more of the financial settlements without ever having to test their cases in court.
Even in the infrequent instances when lawsuits were filed, the reporters found that official records often had vanished. That was because judges agreed to impound the cases once they were settled, shielding from the public not only the outcomes but any traces that the suits had even been filed.
Reporters met another roadblock. In the scores of civil lawsuits pending against Geoghan, a judge had placed a confidentiality seal on all the documents produced in the case, including depositions and Geoghan’s personnel records.
Martin Baron, who had just become editor of the Globe, decided that the newspaper should challenge the judge’s confidentiality order on the grounds that the public interest in unsealing the documents outweighed the privacy concerns of the litigants. In August 2001 the newspaper’s lawyers filed a motion seeking to unseal the Geoghan papers.
Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ruled in the Globe’s favor in November. The Church appealed the decision, but in December a state appeals court judge upheld Sweeney’s ruling. The documents would be released sometime in January 2002.
On December 17, 2001, Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the cardinal’s lawyer, sent the Globe a letter threatening to seek legal sanctions against the newspaper and its law firm if the Globe published anything gleaned from confidential records in the suits. He warned that he would seek court-imposed sanctions if reporters even asked questions of clergy involved in the case.
But by this time, the Spotlight Team had determined through numerous interviews that many priests in the Boston archdiocese had faced sexual abuse allegations in the last decade that were credible enough that the archdiocese had paid settlements to the victims—and had done so secretly. The team used the Church’s annual directories, which list where priests are assigned, as its compass. The reporters developed a database showing that scores of active priests had inexplicably been removed from parish assignments around the time the victims were receiving secret settlements. The scope of the abuse was far greater than previously known.
With Geoghan due to face his first criminal trial on a variety of sex abuse charges in January, the Spotlight Team put aside the secret-settlements story in mid-December and began work on what was initially conceived as a three-thousand-word article that would set the stage for the first Geoghan trial. This was not to be a full-blown investigation but a three-week, in-depth look at the wrecked lives Geoghan had left in his wake during the course of a thirty-four-year rampage.
But after just a week of combing through court files, the Globe found never-publicized documents that were extremely damaging to the archdiocese. The documents included a 1984 warning to Law from one of his bishops that Geoghan remained a danger; a 1982 letter from a parishioner to Law’s predecessor, Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros, laying out Geoghan’s abuses and demanding to know why he was still allowed to serve in a parish with children; and some of Geoghan’s psychiatric records. The documents proved that the archdiocese had known of Geoghan’s abuse of children for decades.
The Globe published its first Spotlight series on the Geoghan case on January 6 and 7. Law declined to be interviewed for the articles. Then, in anticipation of the public release of about ten thousand more pages of Geoghan court documents on January 25, the Globe obtained the documents early and published excerpts and stories about them on January 24, adding rich detail and context to the initial series.
On January 31, the newspaper ran the piece it had first undertaken the previous summer, revealing that over the past decade the Archdiocese of Boston had secretly settled cases in which at least seventy priests had been accused of sexual abuse. The story—based on court documents and records, a database, and interviews with attorneys and other sources involved in the cases—was a watershed, establishing that the Geoghan case was not an aberration.
Within weeks, and under pressure from prosecutors, the archdiocese dug into its files and turned over to local district attorneys the names of more than ninety priests about whom it had received credible sexual abuse complaints over the previous forty years. Soon, prodded by their local media, other dioceses around the country were also combing their files for past complaints and jousting with authorities about what to do with their accused priests. Many of the dioceses began to formulate new policies on how to deal with sexual abuse complaints, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to adopt a national policy for the first time.
As the crisis in the Church grew, the Globe doubled to eight the number of staffers assigned to the story full-time, adding projects reporters Stephen Kurkjian, Thomas Farragher, and Kevin Cullen, and religion reporter Michael Paulson. Over time, other reporters contributed on an ad hoc basis.
This book builds on the extensive reporting the Globe has done on the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Some of the interviews and facts have previously been reported in the newspaper, but no articles were reproduced wholesale; much of the reporting is new, and the book was written from scratch. Reporting for the book, from which any profits will go to charity, also produced stories for the paper. Those articles included previously undisclosed instances of sexual abuse, the interplay between local prosecutors and the Boston archdiocese, and the expanding effort by Catholic laity to challenge the Church’s hierarchy.
The clergy sexual abuse story is still unfolding, and it will likely take years before all the facts are known and all the changes it sets off are in place. This book, written from the epicenter of the scandal in Boston, examines the scandal’s origins and causes, the behavior of abusive priests and their impact on victims, the role of key figures including Geoghan and Law, and the decline of deference among the faithful and how the Catholic Church might change as a result.
Ben Bradlee Jr.