Globe's Articles on Priests Spurred Scrutiny Worldwide
By Mark Jurkowitz
April 8, 2003
Coverage of the scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church to its very core, and that earned The Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize yesterday, began on Jan. 6, 2002, with a story about the archdiocese's failure to prevent the Rev. John Geoghan's abuse of children.
A year later, Boston's powerful church had lost its leader and was mired in a deep crisis. And the Globe's reporting, which included some 800 stories in 2002, helped lead to scrutiny of clergy sexual abuse throughout the United States and the world.
"The scandal, in all of its dimension, has really shaken the church . . . in an unprecedented way," said Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter. "We're just beginning to come to grips with the fact that this is corruption and it is, in fact, systemic. In the countries where it is being dealt with openly, the church will come to health more quickly." "There is no respected institution that I can recall in my lifetime that has been as devastated as the church has been," said Walter V. Robinson, editor of the Globe Spotlight Team, which led the reporting on the story. "The impact could not have been anything other than enormous . . . given the extraordinary influence and moral authority that the church and particularly the cardinal archbishop of Boston have long held."
The Globe's reporting was aided with the court-ordered release of thousands of pages of documents that ended up illuminating a tragic history of abuse and coverup. Most of the work was produced by a team that included religion reporter Michael Paulson; the Spotlight unit of Robinson, Matthew Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michael Rezendes; and investigative reporters Kevin Cullen, Thomas Farragher, and Stephen Kurkjian. Projects and investigations editors Ben Bradlee Jr. and Mark S. Morrow oversaw the team.
Perhaps the single most dramatic event in the unfolding saga occurred in December when Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, the powerful official whose failure to remove sexually abusive priests helped trigger the crisis, resigned his post. But the ripple effects of the scandal have spread from the offices of the church hierarchy to the hearts of the faithful and the halls of the State House.
According to the Globe, approximately 150 priests in the Boston Archdiocese face credible allegations that they molested children. Twenty-five priests in the archdiocese were removed from their positions in 2002, and approximately 450 priests around the nation lost their posts.
The Boston Archdiocese appears to have been affected in other ways as well. The church's most recent annual head count -- taken in October -- indicated a 14 percent drop in attendance at Mass. The major fund-raising vehicle, the Cardinal's Appeal, raised about $8.5 million in 2002, far short of its goal of $17.4 million.
In the aftermath of the scandal, efforts at reforming the church have taken many forms. The Wellesley-based Voice of the Faithful, an activist group of Catholic lay people advocating for a greater voice in church affairs, organized itself into a potent force in the past year. The US bishops created a national board, led by former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, to probe the scandal. And Massachusetts passed two new laws, one adding clergy to the list of professionals required to report suspected cases of sexual abuse of a minor to the state and another making "reckless endangerment to children" a criminal offense.
Yesterday, several observers suggested that the clergy abuse scandal could have a lasting impact on how religion is covered in the mainstream media.
"It's been a wakeup call to many within the religious communities and the media," said Charles Haynes, coauthor of "Religion in American Public Life" and a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. "We have not done a very good job in the United States of covering religion. . . . One of the unfortunate byproducts of the neglect of religion has been to let religion off the hook sometimes. There may have been some kid-glove treatment."
"I think we were able to bring sophisticated coverage to religion, which is a complicated subject," said the Globe's editor, Martin Baron, noting that "the journalism profession has generally underachieved in the realm of religion coverage."
Issues such as the church scandal and the focus on Islam worldwide demonstrate "a crying argument for highly developed religion coverage," Baron added.
Mark Jurkowitz can be reached at email@example.com This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2003.
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