Boston’s most notorious crimes weren’t the mob exploits of Whitey Bulger or the thefts committed by fictionalized Charlestown bank robbers. It was the protection the city’s highest-ranking church leaders regularly gave to pedophile priests.
It took a team of reporters and several brave survivors to reveal the decades-long cover up. The Spotlight investigation led to millions of dollars in legal settlements, decimated reputations, and an Academy Award winning movie. It also inspired a rethinking of statute of limitations laws as they relate to childhood sexual abuse. Perhaps most importantly, it encouraged victims to come forward –– not just in Massachusetts, but across the world.
Spotlight on Abuse
In 2002, The Boston Globe newspaper published a series of groundbreaking articles. Produced by the “Spotlight” reporting team, it relied on public documents, interviews, and never before seen letters to reveal horrific criminal acts. Stretching back at least two decades, the city’s Catholic Archdiocese, including Cardinal Bernard F. Law, presided over the medical treatment and transfer of numerous pedophile priests.
One article focused on perhaps the most egregious offender, a priest named John J. Geoghan. The piece noted that well over 100 people had come forward alleging that Geoghan had molested them. Despite numerous complaints by parents, and even victims, he continued to preside over congregations for more than 30 years.
The Holy Father’s method was to become an ad hoc father figure; he focused on impoverished single mothers and their adolescent boys. When his behavior drew complaints, instead of firing him and involving law enforcement, he was sent to a treatment program. Whether conducted in hospitals or outpatient facilities, the 1980s era programs to rehabilitate pedophiles had extraordinarily low success rates. Yet despite the risk, three cardinals and numerous bishops approved his post-treatment transfers.
Spotlight’s investigation was aided by several survivors, including Patrick McSorley who detailed the crimes Geoghan committed, beginning when he was just 12-years-old. Cardinal Law, other church officials, and their legal team would not answer questions from the Globe. Yet the series of articles did more than win a Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service. The articles quickly led to the arrest and subsequent convictions of five Roman Catholic priests.
It was the first step toward revealing cover-ups in dioceses across the United States. Eventually, similar cases were unearthed in places like Ireland and New Zealand. Beyond their day in court, survivors of the abuse participated in legal settlements worth millions of dollars. While they were aided by the Spotlight report and the justice system, many would not have been compensated without hiring a skilledlawyer for a sexual abuse claim
The story was adapted as a movie in 2015. Starring Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Keaton, Spotlight focused on the reporters and their difficult investigation. Despite the harrowing subject matter, the movie was a box office hit, earning almost $100 million worldwide (five times its estimated budget). It won two Oscars, including Best Picture.
Ultimately the Spotlight investigation did more than uncover a pattern of bad behavior. It illuminated why many victims can take years to come forward. Fighting feelings of shame and embarrassment, many never reveal the abuse. Others are well into adulthood.
This is one reason statute of limitations laws have been modified to allow adults to bring charges for crimes committed when they were children. The investigation
also shed light on how those in power often protect abusers. Today, numerous allegations of sexual abuse include similar cover-ups. Yet Spotlight provides a road map to remedy: how available documents and a few people willing to speak up can lead to justice.