To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Globe reporters discuss work uncovering clergy sex abuse scandal

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe journalists that covered the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church spoke to a full room of over 240 on Tuesday, Nov. 10 about the importance of funding local newspapers and investigative journalists in a time when journalism is transitioning from print to constant, online news coverage.

Josh Singer, the screenwriter of “Spotlight,” a film released this month about The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team and its coverage of the sex abuse scandal, spoke on the panel. He addressed what he sees as a difference between “journalism we see today” and the reporting of the Spotlight journalists.

“The trick here, it seems to me, is to have our first focus on the Church’s policies and practices, rather than on the seemingly large number of priests … who have been accused of being sexual predators,” said Singer. He read the quote from an email that Marty Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe, wrote to two Spotlight writers in 2001 about the investigation.

Singer emphasized Baron’s push to find systematic problems within the Church rather than attack individual pedophilc priests, a “gotcha” strategy he believes is more prevalent in journalism today.

“I wanted to get at the institutional failure … I thought that was the bigger story, rather than just a lot of priests who were abusing kids,” said Baron at panel. “What did the Church do when it found out about those priests? … Did they reassign them to another place where they could abuse again? … If that was the case, you know, that would be horrifying.”

Baron initially proposed investigating the Church on his first day of work as a new editor at The Globe. Brandeis Professor Eileen McNamara (AMST), a moderator at the panel and a previous Globe journalist who wrote in her column about the sex abuse, asked if his position as an “outsider” allowed him to see something the rest of the Globe staff did not.

In 2001, 44 percent of the Massachusetts population was Catholic, according to research conducted at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

“I used to say that in any other city they would call me a newcomer,” Baron responded to McNamara, eliciting a laugh from the crowd. While he did acknowledge that perhaps his fresh eyes gave him a different perspective, it was his journalistic instinct to look for a good story that drove his proposal to further investigate the Church, he said.

In addition to Baron, the panel featured in the Wasserman Cinematheque included attorney from The Globe Jonathan Albano and Spotlight journalists Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll and editors Walter Robinson and Ben Bradlee Jr.

The seven-month investigation cost The Globe over $1 million, said Baron. “What’s the return?” he asked. “Well, it’s hard to say.” Although the financial return is unclear, Baron emphasized the invaluable role journalists play in holding “powerful institutions … accountable because no one else will.”

Because newspapers are facing budget cuts, many powerful institutions are going uncovered and it is concerning, said Baron. There are many courthouses that are entirely absent of journalists, Pfeiffer added.

From 2003 to 2009, more than 50 newspapers nationwide stopped covering statehouses entirely, according to a survey by The American Journalism Review. From 2006 to 2009, spending on reporters and editors decreased by $1.6 billion, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Although home circulation is steadily declining, we have more readers than we have ever had when you factor in online readers,” said Pfeiffer. “Unfortunately, most of them are not paying readers, so that’s the problem.”

An important theme of the film is to emphasize the importance of investigative and local journalism, said Singer about the movie. “What these guys did, they were able to do … because they know Boston. They knew the ins and outs of the city,” he said. Paying for and supporting local papers is vital to keeping officials accountable, Singer said.

Other topics covered during the panel included the emotional toll interviewing survivors of pedophile priests had on journalists and the 800 stories that resulted from the investigation.

Because the subject matter was so “emotionally wrenching,” Robinson said his wife believed the journalists suffered from PTSD.

Following the publication of the Spotlight team’s initial article about the sex abuse scandal, the team responded to more than 300 calls from victims from the Boston Archdiocese, said Rezendez. “Their stories sustained us for years,” he said.

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