The Spotlight Team

The Spotlight Team enjoyed unusual autonomy and freedom within the news operation. It typically spent weeks and months reporting stories, which tended to focus on governmental corruption and organized crime. “It’s one of the best jobs in journalism,” Robinson says. Such units were prohibitively expensive; many newspapers could not afford them. Spotlight investigations occupied four of the Globe’s best journalists, who otherwise would have produced hundreds of other stories a year.

The 2001 incarnation of the Spotlight Team was new. The only member with more than a year on the unit was Matt Carroll, who specialized in computer-assisted reporting. Robinson had started with Spotlight in late 2000, bringing with him more than 25 years of Globe experience as a city political reporter, White House correspondent, and Middle East bureau chief. Bradlee and Robinson recruited Michael Rezendes, a political reporter who in his 11 years at the Globe had served as City Hall bureau chief, weekly essayist, and roving national reporter. Rezendes’ respect for Robinson and Bradlee was such that he immediately agreed to sign on. Something big would happen, he felt. “I mean, I just knew it in my bones,” he says. [1] To round out the team, Bradlee and Robinson brought on Sacha Pfeiffer, an experienced court reporter who had already written about the Geoghan case.

Rummaging . The team wanted first to find out whether the scandal went beyond a single priest. What, if anything, did church leaders know about Geoghan and other abusive priests? Says Baron:

Can we document in this instance that the cardinal and the hierarchy of the Archdiocese knew that Geoghan had abused children and, despite that, reassigned him from one parish to the next where he then abused other children? And, if it happened in the Geohgan case, did it happen in other cases, and if so, how many and how often? Those were the two questions that needed to be answered.

Listen to Baron discuss documenting a pattern of abuse.

The reporters knew that senior archdiocese officials were unlikely to speak to them. But others might. If there had been sexual abuse, then there were victims, and if there were victims, then there were possibly lawyers. The Spotlight Team worked the phones. “The four of us just started to call everybody,” Robinson says. “Everybody we knew who might know anything about this subject. You know, we were rummaging around in the dark.”

Within only a week or so, they discovered that the church had secretly paid off a number of people to deter them from filing sexual abuse lawsuits against priests. Such “hush money” settlements served the interests of all the parties: the lawyers received money without having to go to trial, the archdiocese kept the crimes hidden, and the victims remained anonymous. Everyone on the Spotlight Team agreed that the situation was worthy of further investigation, and the challenge of it, says Pfeiffer, heightened its appeal. She notes:

[T]he church wasn’t a public entity, didn’t have to give us anything, didn’t want to give us anything. Sex abuse victims were often embarrassed and ashamed, and didn’t want to talk. The lawyers who represented them had developed this great cottage industry where they were making a lot of money, so they had no interest in talking. So it was the ultimate challenge: How do you get information? [2]

Listen to Pfeiffer discuss the challenges of reporting on the church.

At this point the journalists felt that they were onto a big story. They guessed that as many as a dozen priests might be involved. They told Baron what they had learned, and he authorized a full-fledged project. By late August, the Spotlight Team had a daunting new assignment: to find out what Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese knew about pedophile priests in its midst.



[1] Author’s interview with Michael Rezendes in Boston, MA, on May 8, 2008. All further quotes from Rezendes, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[2] Author’s interview with Sacha Pfeiffer in Boston, MA, on May 8, 2008. All further quotes from Pfeiffer, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.