Globe Editor Discusses Coverage of Clergy Sexual Abuse

At Poynter.org Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, talks about the journalistic process behind breaking the story of sexual abuse by priests. He says he "lit the match" starting the investigation on his first day on the job, nearly ten years ago:

Baron was determined to avoid “he said, she said” accounts. He saw that unsealing court documents would be the key to opening the fuller story about what Father John Geoghan, the subject of scores of lawsuits, along with other priests and the church itself, had done to victims over the years.

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When a Globe lawyer declared the chances of getting those documents unsealed to be 50-50, Baron declared those to be good odds. He persuaded then-publisher Richard Gilman. (Baron believes in “a no-surprise rule: Don’t surprise the publisher.”) He also determined that the paper’s success was more likely because the church was handicapped by “inept legal counsel.” And he calculated that the paper would benefit from the assignment of state Judge Constance Sweeney — a Catholic woman from Springfield, not Boston — to rule on the sealed documents.

Baron also tried to set a restrained tone for the Globe’s stories. “I wanted to be careful with the language, avoiding words like ‘explosive,’ ‘stunning,’ ‘shocking’,” he said. The words applied to priests raping children, of course, but “adjectives like that are the kinds of things people seize on,” Baron told the students. “You don’t need to do that, because the story speaks for itself.” Instead, he imposed an “almost dispassionate” standard. (On the day the Globe’s public-service Pulitzer was announced in 2003, then-Spotlight team leader Walter Robinson had joked about Baron to his fellow staffers that “somewhere within sight of this newsroom there has to be a closet full of adjectives he excised from these stories.”)

Read the rest here.

Kerry Weber

 

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Juan Lino
7 years 7 months ago
Thanks for posting the link to Mr. Harris' story about Martin Baron.  It's a wonderful story and there were some memorable quotes that really spoke to me: “To have impact, you have to say, what’s the truth here?”; “You don’t need to do that, because the story speaks for itself.” 
Carolyn Disco
7 years 7 months ago
Hearty congratulations to Marty Baron and Walter Robinson of the Globe for their leadership in exposing the hierarchy’s endangerment of children. Bishops were remarkably success in hiding crimes to preserve their reputation. I watched the Globe’s coverage closely.

Yes, it was the release of documents that made the entire difference. I read somewhere it cost the Globe $1 million in legal fees, but cannot find the source this minute. Still, without the courage of survivors in coming forward, we would know nothing. It was their lawsuits that brought action.
In addition to Judge Constance Sweeney, let’s also remember the courage of significant  women judges, who were the ones to open the floodgates: Leila Kern in Cambridge who authorized public release of the Shanley documents, a huge victory for disclosure; Nettie Vogel in RI, who was disgusted with the charade of the church’s parsing of legalese to minimize access to documents; Louise DeCarl Adler in San Diego who held Bishop Brom’s feet to the fire during bankruptcy; Anne Burke of IL who knows episcopal mendacity firsthand and is not afraid to call a lie a lie; Yvonne Murphy in Ireland, who headed the investigation of the Dublin archdiocese, to name several.
American bishops and cardinals learned a valuable lesson in the process though:

control the story by fighting page by page all the way to the US Supreme Court to keep documents secret. Settle lawsuits at whatever price necessary to keep bishops off the stand under oath, litigate bogus First Amendment defenses as a stall (and it might work), or declare bankruptcy on the eve of trial to stop discovery and document releases.
Last option: Promise document releases in a settlement, but then frustrate implementation by countless maneuvers that can indefinitely tie up exposure of the truth.  When all else fails, play the anti-Catholicism card against the media (Dolan’s specialty), and of course refer to greedy attorneys for a quick score.
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ed gleason
7 years 7 months ago
"because the church was handicapped by “inept legal counsel.”
When the lawyer has to address his/hers clients as your Excellency or your Eminence don't expect good counsel.
Molly Roach
7 years 7 months ago
I think that the Boston Globe launched their series of articles about the sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests because the leaders of the Church steadfastly refused to deal with this calamity.  A witch hunt?   I don't think so.  It sold papers?   That is the business of the Globe.   Their "success" rides on the heels of a calamitous failure among the hierarchs of the Roman Catholic Church who cast a blind eye on these events until publicity forced them to look.   
john fitzmorris
7 years 7 months ago
I was intrigued by the comment of Mr. Baron about the Archdiocese's "inept" legal counsel. In other words, the Archdiocese may have gotten away with the cover-up if it had employed the services of craftier, more astute counsel. That's a frightening prospect in many ways. In light of this most telling comment, I believe that the hierarchy needs to re-assess using the courts and its ministers in matters involving the Faithful. There is something in our own literature, the Gospel of Matthew in fact, that looks askance on using courts. This scandal - stumbling block - is not a matter for the legal process. It never should have come to this.
John Barbieri
7 years 7 months ago
By their actions the bishops became accessories after the facts.They have no one to blame other than themselves. Their behavior indicates that what they really care about are their careers and money rather than their people.
In the gospels, the bishops- and we, too - are warned that what is spoken in whispers will be shouted from the rooftops. All that the media did was expose them for what they did.
The courts gave the victims some measure of justice when the church did not. The bishops still haven't realized that, while they may have ecclesiastical authority, they have lost moral authority. What good will their authority do them when people just stop caring about it?

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