Reporting Your Culture

The Spotlight reporters’ consternation was the more acute because, as they learned only well into the investigation, all four had been raised Catholic. None was still practicing, but their experience growing up in the church gave them an intuitive grasp of the story and also added a level of emotional connection. Pfeiffer, an Ohio native, had grown up both Catholic and Protestant, attending church twice on Sundays. She says that going into the investigation she didn’t have any strong feelings one way or the other about the Catholic Church; to her, it was an interesting story that she could approach relatively objectively. But with time, the story hit home. Her mother, in fact, had grown up in Boston. Says Pfeiffer:

She was one of those devout Catholics who, the greatest honor would be the priest coming to dinner, and it was very interesting for me to see how people like my mother who thought that the priests were angels and saints and didn’t ask questions, and wouldn’t question the church, basically ended up enabling this to happen for as long as it did.

Their upbringings helped the reporters comprehend the power of the priesthood. In most Catholic communities, parents were honored to have a priest take an active interest in their children, and in large families, especially fatherless ones, caretaking help was invaluable. If suspicions arose, people gave priests the benefit of the doubt. The Globe discovered cases in which children told their parents that they had been molested, and the parents didn’t believe them.

Hardened journalists—as well as lapsed Catholics—the Spotlight Team members were expecting to uncover secrets. But what they found exceeded their expectations. It was the prevalence of abuse that shocked them and, more than that, the church’s effort to conceal it. “Even though I was aware that [sexual abuse in the church] was a problem,” Rezendes says, “I never, ever for one second thought that we would discover what we ultimately did discover.” Carroll remembers feeling “shocked and excited and sort of bewildered” as the church’s role became clear. A Massachusetts native whose aunt had been a nun, Carroll had vivid memories of Cardinal Cushing in the 1960s. He says:

He was building hospitals and orphanages throughout greater Boston and that's all you’d see on TV, this real old guy but obviously just a real well meaning sweet guy just doing so much good for the community, helping people left and right. My father was always active in the parish council, so we always had priests in, and I knew my aunt and she was just a really great woman, and I had the utmost respect for the church. Then all of a sudden you start seeing this stuff, I was like they're covering stuff up, what's going on? It was baffling and mind-boggling.

Not surprisingly, their human reaction tempered their excitement about the story. As Robinson recalls: “There are some stories you do where you’re excited and you’re pumped. I think in this case this was not a story where there were high fives, because the subject matter was so grim and so gruesome and so disconcerting, so depressing.” But those same characteristics also made the story impossible to drop. Says Pfeiffer:

Once we finally tapped into that network of lawyers and victims who would talk to us, we realized there were huge numbers of stories that were just like each other. A priest abused a kid, parents tell the church, the priest disappears and shows up somewhere else. There was a lot of that happening, so it was pretty clear that the numbers were really big.