In early November 2001, sitting at his desk at the Boston Globe , Michael Rezendes looked through a packet of photocopied documents. The documents were evidence in a group of civil cases pending against former Catholic priest John Geoghan, accused of sexual abuse by more than 100 people. A few of the documents, Rezendes discovered, were important. One was explosive.

Rezendes was a member of the Spotlight Team, the paper’s four-person investigative team. In July, the Globe’s new editor, Martin Baron, had instructed the team to examine the problem of sexual abuse in Boston’s fabled Catholic Archdiocese. The team had twin goals: to learn whether Geoghan’s case was part of a pattern of sexual abuse by priests and, if so, to discover whether the archdiocese had shielded offenders and concealed their crimes.

By early November, the Spotlight Team had uncovered a story larger than any of the journalists had anticipated. By scouring documents and speaking to victims and lawyers, they had discovered evidence suggesting that many priests, perhaps dozens, had abused children, and that the church had not only attempted to conceal their crimes but—by assigning them to new parishes—had also enabled them to commit more. No piece of evidence was more significant than the document discovered by Rezendes. It proved that Boston’s powerful archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, had known about Geoghan’s history of pedophilia before relocating him to parishes where many of the alleged crimes had taken place.

The Spotlight reporters had planned to publish a comprehensive piece on Geoghan in January, to coincide with the beginning of his trial. They’d wanted to make the story as airtight as possible. This was the way Spotlight operated, and it seemed to make particular sense in this charged case. Boston was a majority-Catholic city, the only one in the country, and the archdiocese was the city’s most powerful institution. The story had the potential to unsettle the city at its core. To make matters even more complicated, many Boston Catholics already saw the Globe as liberal, elitist, and anti-Catholic.

But the document Rezendes had was public; it resided in a docket file, where any court reporter might find it. Although the Globe journalists were sure they were well ahead of their competitors on the story, this document alone was a major story that they were loath to lose to a rival news organization. The team had a choice. It could proceed as planned, holding the Cardinal Law-Geoghan story until January. Or it could run this story as soon as possible. Basic competitive instincts argued for publishing the story immediately. The need to be thorough, and to have maximum impact, argued for waiting.