Sunday February 21, 2016

How revealing the Church's cover-up of child sex abuse by priests changed Boston forever

Former Spotlight editor Walter Robinson, with actor Michael Keaton at the premiere of the film 'Spotlight'.

Former Spotlight editor Walter Robinson, with actor Michael Keaton at the premiere of the film 'Spotlight'. (Jonathan Short/Invision/AP)

Listen 33:48

On January 6, 2002, the Boston Globe published an explosive story about widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese. It started as an investigation into a number of allegations of abuse committed by Father John Geoghan. It became a report about dozens of priests abusing children … and a cover-up by the hierarchy of the archdiocese, which quietly shunted the offending priests out of service or shuffled them off to other parishes. 

Cardinal Bernard Law

On Aug. 2, 2002, Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Bernard Law tetifies in Boston's Suffolk Superior Court, regarding his knowledge and handling of the child sex abuse case against the Rev. John Geoghan, and an alleged $30 million settlement from the Boston Archdiocese to be given to victims. (George Martell/Boston Herald via AP)

The Archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, who had held nearly unchallenged authority over Boston society, was shown to have orchestrated the hushing up of priestly misconduct. And he was forced to resign the following December.

After a year and a half of the Globe's reporting, 250 priests stood accused of sexually abusing children over the course of 50 years. It stands as a landmark of investigative reporting and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The story of the Boston Globe's investigation is the subject of Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2016. 

It's very much about the work of journalists, and considering how much investigative journalism is unglamorous, painstaking tedium - knocking on doors, making cold calls, chasing false leads, poring over file after file of archives and records. It is unlikely material for a suspenseful thriller.But in the tradition of All The President's Men, the Globe's journalists are depicted as gutsy defenders of the public interest, using their wits and courage to expose wrongdoing. You could be excused for pumping your fist at the film's climax.

The film could also be read as sort of a requiem for print journalism in the current bleak environment for the newspaper business.

Walter Robinson was the leader of the Boston Globe's investigative unit called Spotlight - the team that broke the story. Although he may be somewhat better known as "the guy Michael Keaton plays in the film."

From 2007-2014, Robinson was the Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University, and now he's back at the Globe as editor-at-large.