Organizing the Files

As they amassed ever larger amounts of information, the Spotlight Team knew that organizing their findings would be essential. Matt Carroll was, as he describes himself, “the keeper of the data.” He had started at the Globe as a copy editor and moved up through the ranks on the strength of his computer-assisted reporting skills, which he had learned primarily from colleagues. By the standards of computer-assisted reporting, this was simple stuff, and Carroll put in place a rudimentary spreadsheet to keep track of the information.

Sick leave . The database swelled after Robinson had a “light bulb moment.” It occurred to him to look through the public directories published by the church, which gave the status and location of all the priests in the archdiocese. The Spotlight Team knew that in between assignments, Geoghan had been placed on “sick leave,” so they examined 17 years’ worth of directories, taking particular notice of “on-the-shelf” designations. Carroll recalls:

You’d be looking through it from say ’97, ’98, ’99 and the first two years it would say John Smith, St. Mary’s Church, Dedham, then all of a sudden it would say John Smith, unassigned. So what does unassigned mean? Or sick leave or something like that… Or transferred to foreign missions. That was another place they would send them off to. So we just started looking for that, sort of these details. That was sort of their way of camouflaging what they were doing.

Listen to Carroll describe using church directories as a reporting tool.

There were legitimate reasons to take sick leave, of course, but an on-the-shelf designation was enough to raise suspicion among the Spotlight Team members, especially if the name of that priest had come up elsewhere in the investigation. Although the directories by themselves proved nothing, they provided invaluable leads and a point of reference. Here, hiding in plain sight, was evidence.

The directories were like thick phonebooks, with minuscule text. Pfeiffer, Rezendes, and Carroll shared the tedious work of going through them. Two of them, squinting over directories, called out information; the third entered it on the spreadsheet. This was only one of the painstaking tasks in the investigation. The Spotlight Team had once been known as a cushy gig, with deadlines few and far between. No longer. They worked long days cloistered in “the cave,” two small rooms downstairs in the Globe building. When they got a rare day off, they didn’t have much energy for their families. “I was a puddle,” says Carroll, who had four young children.

As the senior member of the team, Walter Robinson might have left some of the grunt work to the others, but he was the first one in every morning, arriving at dawn. Affectionately known as Robbie, he was erudite yet crusty, someone you could picture speaking to both longshoremen and heads of state. His tirelessness and meticulousness impressed his junior colleagues, who had little choice but to keep pace. Robinson was also an old-fashioned reporter. On September 7, he met downtown with two sources who gave him a list of priests whose alleged abuses had triggered “hush-money” settlements. There were more than 30 names on the list.

September 11 . The investigation came to a halt, however, with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All US news organizations turned their full attention to the national tragedy. The Globe had a special interest, as the two flights which hit New York’s World Trade Center had originated in Boston. The Spotlight Team was pulled off the priest sex abuse story. “It was a no-brainer,” Robinson says.