In 2002, The Boston Globe shocked America with its coverage of a Catholic Church scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston. It was the first in-depth coverage of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. It covered the sexual abuse scandal through a series of articles. The Boston Globe would later win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for this series. The first of these articles relayed the story of John J. Geoghan.
The Expose of John J. Geoghan
Geoghan was a former priest ordained in 1962. During his time in the priesthood, Geoghan sexually abused more than a hundred young boys in Greater Boston parishes. His youngest victim was four years old. Despite his history of abuse, diocesan leaders moved the abusive priest to one parish after another. This practice is known as priest shuffling. He left a trail of abuse in his wake.
Survivors File Lawsuits Against Father Geoghan
The Boston Globe story detailed three decades of Geoghan’s priesthood. These decades were fraught with allegations of abuse, sick leave and hospital stays for his “problem.” These details came from court documents compiled as evidence for 84 civil lawsuits and two criminal charges against Geoghan. Many of these lawsuits also name the Archdiocese of Boston, one cardinal, and five bishops for their roles in perpetuating Geoghan’s abuse.
These lawsuits were not the first filed against Geoghan. The archdiocese previously settled more than 50 priest abuse claims against Geoghan for $10 million. However, these newer lawsuits were significant. For the first time, confidential documents pertaining to the abuse were made public.
In November 2001, Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ordered the confidential documents in the case to be made public. These documents revealed decades of deceptive church actions.
The Boston Globe Priest Abuse Series Prompts Public Outrage
The initial story of Father Geoghan shocked America. The story of the serial abuser was horrific. But, what truly broke many Americans’ trust in the Catholic Church was the abuse cover-up. Longstanding trust in the Catholic Church was diminished with the publication of these stories.
Americans were outraged by the Catholic Church’s actions to protect Geoghan. By protecting an abuser such as Geoghan, the Catholic Church had endangered the welfare of innocent children.
The Historical Power Of The Catholic Church
Historically, the Catholic Church held a position of power in many American families and in American society. This was especially true in the Boston area.
Many Irish Catholic families settled in Boston after immigrating to America. Children in these families were raised to revere their parish priests. The idea that a priest would sexually abuse a child was nearly inconceivable to many parishioners. Catholic priests were men of God who could do no wrong. This idealized perception of priests even impacted sentencing in Boston’s legal system.
The Catholic Church’s Impact On Secular Courts
In the 1980s, judges in Boston and other areas of Massachusetts often gave lesser punishments to priests who committed abuse.
In one example, a priest was charged with the rape of a 13-year-old boy. He was given probation under the condition the priest no longer worked with children. The Boston Archdiocese ignored the legal condition and moved the priest to a parish in New Jersey.
Not only did judges give lighter sentences to accused priests, but they also contributed to the abuse cover-up. Between 1992 and 1996, Boston judges closed the records on five lawsuits against three priests who molested children. In doing so, these judges kept the details of these cases hidden from the public.
The Impact Of The Boston Globe’s Clergy Abuse Investigation
The Boston Globe’s investigation resulted in more than 600 news articles. The full Boston Globe series covers scandals, lawsuits and abuse cover-ups.
Because of the series, The Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in Journalism in 2003.
The Boston Globe Story Spurs Spotlight Movie
In November 2015, the movie Spotlight premiered. The film documented the work of The Boston Globe’s investigative team — the “Spotlight” team — that surfaced the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in Boston. The movie won several awards, including two Oscars.
Following The Boston Globe’s coverage of the Catholic Church scandal, lawyers and lawmakers worked to hold the Catholic Church accountable. Marian Walsh, a Massachusetts state senator, called for the resignation of a cardinal who hid Geoghan’s abuse. Lawmakers in other states began investigations into the Catholic dioceses in their own states.
Though it would take nearly two decades following the 2002 Boston Globe series, numerous state lawmakers expanded their state’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers. These new legal deadlines offer abuse survivors more time to seek legal justice.
Burr, T. (2016, February 28). ‘Spotlight’ triumphs with best picture Oscar. The Boston Globe.
Cullen, K. (2002, May 12). Scandal erodes traditional deference to church. The Boston Globe.
Goldstein, M. (2015, October 30). How the ‘Spotlight’ movie got made. The Boston Globe.
The Pulitzer Prizes. (N.D.) 2003 Pulitzer Prizes.
Rezendes, M. (2002, January 6). Church allowed abuse by priest for years. The Boston Globe.
(2016, March 11). Key reports from Globe’s Spotlight team on clergy sex abuse. The Boston Globe.