The two institutions that have most shaped my life – journalism and the Catholic Church – collide in the stunning film, Spotlight. It is the story of the investigative reporting team whose reporters uncovered the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests in the archdiocese of Boston. The film is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture.
The Globe’s exposé was published in early 2002. But nine months before, in March 2001, the Boston Phoenix, the alternative weekly, published its story, “Cardinal sin,” which explored in depth allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law was complicit in the abuse cover-up. Kristen Lombardi wrote that first story, and continued her reporting, writing eight stories in all. The Globe’s reporting did not acknowledge her work.
Lombardi lacked the resources of The Globe and was largely working alone, although guided by her editors. But Lombardi, then a young and relatively green reporter, did her best. Her role was consigned to only a throw-away line in the film, when a reporter from The Globe describes the Phoenix as a weak and under-resourced rival that “nobody reads.”
Others have noted The Globe’s dismissal of Lombardi’s contribution. In 2012, media critic Jim Romenesko posted a letter from Susan Ryan-Vollmar on his popular website. Ryan-Vollmar, Lombardi’s editor at the Phoenix, chided The Globe for not acknowledging Lombardi’s ground-breaking work. Ryan-Vollmar praised The Globe’s “phenomenal” coverage, but wondered why the paper seemed determined to take “100 percent of the credit,” unwilling to concede even ten percent to the stories the Phoenix published.
Boston Magazine revisited the credit controversy last fall, when Spotlight premiered.
Despite not getting the credit she deserved, Lombardi went on to become an accomplished investigative reporter. She earned a Nieman journalism fellowship for study at Harvard University and several national journalism awards. She’s now a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.
I interviewed Lombardi for my forthcoming book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope. Like so many of the reporters in the film, Lombardi was born and raised Catholic. She went to Mass with her family, made her First Communion and was confirmed.
Like The Globe reporters, she had become a lapsed Catholic, disagreeing with the church on its positions on abortion and sexuality, and its views on women in general. But she had always believed in the “social justice” dimension of Catholicism. As a young professional, she said, she “didn’t see much of a role for it in my life,” but she hadn’t “disavowed” the church.
The abuse scandal changed her relationship to Catholicism. It also tested her mettle as a journalist.
In January 2001, both The Globe and the Boston Herald ran small stories on the ongoing lawsuits against one abusive priest, John Geoghan. The stories mentioned that Cardinal Law had been added as a defendant. To Lombardi and her editor, that meant that “this particular attorney must have had some pretty damning evidence to convince a judge to do this.”
At the Phoenix, Lombardi said, her job was to pay attention “to those stories that we felt were being ignored or under-covered by the main dailies. We were an alternative weekly. We were giving people the news the dailies were not interested in covering, or were ignoring or weren’t covering very well.”
If Law had been added as a defendant, she said, the implication was that he was “somehow complicit.” Her editor asked her to watch and see how the dailies followed up because “if they do nothing, that’s kind of a big deal.”
Boston’s two dailies remained quiet. The Phoenix followed up. Lombardi, working alone, did many of the things that The Globe’s reporters did. She scanned clips not only from local papers but sought out abuse cases from other parts of the country. As early as 1985, Jason Berry’s stories on priestly abuse in Louisiana had been published in the National Catholic Reporter. There had been incidents in Dallas and California.
She sought out the attorneys involved in the other abuse cases, trying to find out whether a Cardinal had ever been named as a defendant in any of the earlier lawsuits. “They had never heard of it,” she says. “This small article in The Globe and Herald was seen elsewhere in the country as big news” by the people pursuing these abuse cases, she said.
So the Phoenix decided to focus on Law, and the institution. “What did the Church know and when?” Since she “was the closest thing to an investigative reporter on the staff,” she pursued the story.
She sought out abuse victims at six different parishes where Geoghan had molested kids. She found one victim from each parish who agreed to be identified by name. It wasn’t easy to find the victims. The court records listed them only as Jane or John Doe.
To reach the victims, she sought out the attorneys representing them, including Mitchell Garabedian, who has a prominent role in Spotlight. There had been an earlier wave of Geoghan lawsuits, where the victims settled, and she was able to talk to other victims only on background, because their settlements with the church were confidential.
“It was a very difficult story to report. Victims were not speaking out,” she said. “Victims felt very beaten down, and unheard and very, very skeptical and wary” both of reporters and of the “general public’s response to them.” The anger, she said, was not primarily directed at Geoghan, but at the church.
Spotlight gives us glimpses into what it’s like for a reporter to interview abuse victims, but these were seasoned reporters who had an entire newsroom behind them.
Consider what it must have been like for Lombardi, who thought that investigative journalism was “something really magical” and “something that I didn’t do.” She had never interviewed victims of sexual abuse before. “I relied solely on instinct and intuition to get me through because these were very very difficult interviews.”
She didn’t ask a lot of questions, she said. “I just sat and listened. I was able to empathize, and it was clear to me that these victims were struggling years later.”
At this point, there weren’t many court documents, she said. “A lot of the discovery material was sealed.” But Lombardi went through whatever materials she could find, reading every page. Depositions from some parents, she says, were “really chilling.”
Mothers of abused children complained to senior church officials, and were told that “they would take care of it, not to worry.” Later, she said, they would find out that Geoghan had been shuttled to another parish.
Lombardi dreaded calling the priests and monsignors who had lied to those mothers. “It was a real kind of fear,” she said. She attributed this in part to her inexperience with these types of stories, but surmised it also had to do with the way she was raised. “You don’t challenge the church. … Me asking these challenging, hard-hitting questions of church officials. You’re not supposed to do that, right?”
She was dealing with the “heavy weight” of the victims’ stories, as well as “Catholic guilt, a whole different kind of albatross around my neck.” She lacked the “counterweight of the institutional power of the newsroom” to help her deal with all this.
“It wasn’t like I was on a team where you could commiserate. There’s this boisterousness that holds you up when you’re part of a team.”
As she was completing her first story, which examined allegations about Law’s direct involvement in the Geoghan abuse cover-up, Lombardi began having nightmares. Even though she was convinced she was doing the right thing, “I had some serious dreams about Cardinal Law coming after me, about being sent to hell.”
It was her intense desire to achieve some justice for the victims that kept her going. “I could see the hurt. It was so plainly obvious. It was worn in people’s eyes and on their bodies. And the betrayal and the anger. It was so palpable.”
Over the years, Lombardi has written ground-breaking series on the victims of sexual assault on college campuses. But the victims of clergy abuse are different because the abuse was “an attack on their faith, she said. “I felt like they really needed some justice. Maybe I could give it to them by telling their stories.”
Spotlight ends on a note of triumph. The presses roll, and the front-page story arrives on doorsteps. The phones in the offices of The Globe’s investigative team ring off the hook as the reporters take dozens of calls from other abuse victims.
(However, to its credit the film confronts another uncomfortable aspect of The Globe’s performance: the revelation that in 1993 an editor had failed to follow up on a tip by an attorney representing abuse victims who offered the paper the names of 20 priests accused of abuse.)
Lombardi did get some calls from victims and some thanks. But she also felt the sting of backlash. She was called a “Catholic hater.” Her own mother is now proud of her daughter’s groundbreaking story. But initially was “she really unhappy,” Lombardi said. Her mother took particular umbrage at the photo that accompanied the story, picturing a prayerful Law, his eyes closed. The caption was “See no evil, hear no evil.”
Indeed, the only complaint the official church made to the Phoenix was over the photo. “They didn’t say anything about the substance of the story,” she said. “I immediately knew that everything was true.”
Lombardi said that those who orchestrated the cover-up were “driven by a desire to protect the church.” That motive, she said, is “pretty common” for all institutions, whose first reaction is to “circle the wagons … and try to put the scandal to rest before it explodes.”
But the church is supposed to be better than other institutions, she said. That’s what made its conduct “so outrageous.” She added that over the years the church amassed a sophisticated understanding of pedophilia. “They knew more about pedophilia than anybody else.” But the church chose to ignore that knowledge, and opted to protect its own reputation, rather than the children in its care.
When I interviewed her in early 2013, more than a decade after the Law story, she said she couldn’t conceive of ever returning to the church. I contacted Lombardi last fall to see if her feelings about Catholicism had changed in light of a somewhat more tolerant church under Pope Francis. “No, my views on the church have not changed since we spoke,” she emailed back.
When we spoke two years ago, I speculated that perhaps the value of “bearing witness” and “giving voice to the voiceless,” bedrock Christian values, meant that journalism was her new substitute for religious faith.
“Journalism has become my religion, I’ll put it that way,” Lombardi said. “I truly do believe that I’m doing righteous work by giving voice to the voiceless. I really do.”