Putting the ‘Spotlight’ on clergy abuse: Q&A with the Boston Globe's Walter V. Robinson
Walter V. “Robby” Robinson is editor-at-large of the Boston Globe. Raised Catholic, Mr. Robinson attended Boston College High School and Northeastern University. In 2001-02, he led the Spotlight Team’s investigation that uncovered the extent of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Archdiocese of Boston, winning a Pulitzer Prize for these stories which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and triggered a wider awareness of sexual abuse in addition to multiple class action lawsuits against Catholic dioceses around the nation. His team’s investigation of clergy sex abuse in Boston was depicted in the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” (2015), in which actor Michael Keaton played him.
Mr. Robinson has earned a number of journalism awards and honorary degrees. He previously served the Globe as a city editor, metro editor, White House correspondent and foreign correspondent. On July 3, I interviewed him by email about his coverage of the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
It is now 15 years since your Spotlight team at the Boston Globe began investigating clergy sex abuse, leading to a Pulitzer-winning series of stories that shook the Catholic Church. From your perspective, how has the impact of this series evolved over that time?
Our stories, which focused mostly on the Boston archdiocese, have reverberated throughout the United States and around the world, and have prompted the church to begin to account for what had gone on for decades; and to begin to take steps to end the abuse, put protections for children in place, and institute a healing process within the church. Since the debut of the film “Spotlight,’’ there has been an uptick of new claims of abuse in many countries.
What have been some highlights for you in covering this story?
The principal highlight has been the satisfaction of knowing that our reporting helped give voice to the voiceless, countless victims who had lived with their pain in the shadows, very often for decades; and knowing that investigative reporting can help bring about meaningful change.
What have been some challenges of covering it?
By far the biggest challenge we faced was figuring out how to pierce the veil, to find out what the Boston archdiocese had done about its offending priests when there was virtually no public information for us to rely on.
Michael Keaton portrays you in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” (2015) about the Globe’s investigation from 2001 to 2002. What did this film get right about your experiences?
The film was extraordinarily faithful in portraying what happened at the Globe – how the story came about, the major steps we took pursuing it, the personalities involved, and the results of our work.
Every film “based on a true story” inevitably condenses material and leaves some things out. In what areas could the film “Spotlight” have done a better job of portraying what happened?
The film condensed five months of our work into two hours and eight minutes. They could have made the film more boring, which our investigative reporting surely is. Many of our reporting steps were omitted. Most of the victims we interviewed were as well.
In the film, Michael Keaton portrays you as a lapsed Catholic who attended Boston College High School, a Jesuit institution located across the street from the Globe. The film depicts you as stunned to discover that abusive priests were working at the high school when you were a student, but it suggests that you hadn’t been a practicing Catholic even before this revelation. What caused you to drift away from the Catholic Church?
The film is accurate as it portrays my Catholic education, though I had actually graduated before Father James Talbot arrived at the school. It is true that I was a lapsed Catholic at the time we did our reporting, and went to Mass only a few times a year. Like many others of my generation, I drifted away from the church because I thought—and still do—that the church’s leaders were out of touch with the lives of Catholics, and with many long overdue changes in the modern world, to include, most obviously, the equitable treatment of women in society.
What are the best things you remember about growing up Catholic and attending B.C. High?
The rigor of the education, the focus on the Classics and the discipline without which I most certainly would have done a lot less with my life.
What are the worst things you remember about growing up Catholic and attending B.C. High?
The amount of time I spent in Jug [editor’s note: “Justice under God” is the Jesuit equivalent of detention]; and back in my home parish, the extent to which it was difficult for Catholics to interact with people of other faiths.
As a result of your covering the clergy abuse scandal for the Boston Globe in 2001-02, the U.S. Catholic bishops have initiated a lengthy series of “safe environment training” programs for Catholic employees to initiate protocols for protection of children. Since leaving journalism to become a Jesuit in 2005, I would estimate that I have been through at least a dozen of these programs for the Society of Jesus and various dioceses myself, as it is no longer possible for clergy or laypeople to minister in different places without screening. From your perspective, what is the value of these programs and what hopes do you have for the Catholic Church to better protect children in the future?
The training is invaluable, as is the dramatically increased vigilance by the church and by parents. One continues to hope that the commitment to protecting children would be as strong across the church, in the United States and abroad, as it surely is in Boston and many other dioceses.
We have known from psychology for a long time that most child abusers tend to be family members (uncles, aunts, parents, etc.) or people drawn to work in professions (coaching, teaching, ministry, etc.) where they can more easily “groom” potential victims. Today we know that the percentage of sex abusers in the Catholic clergy is equivalent to the percentage of sex abusers in the general male population. But until your series of stories, many Americans tended to give Catholic priests a free pass, excluding them from scrutiny in a way that the film “Spotlight” depicts as a wide-ranging conspiracy of silence. In your reporting, what have you learned about the capacity of well-meaning people to enable abuse by looking the other way?
Of course, the great unaddressed taboo in American society is the extent of sexual abuse within extended families, which is a much more serious and intractable problem than abuse by caregivers. I am frankly skeptical of the notion that the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is no higher than that of other men. In Boston, one of the few archdioceses where there has been a full accounting, more than one of every 10 priests abused children.
I think all of us, certainly reporters and editors, learned from this experience that we did not hold our most iconic institutions as accountable as we routinely do for other institutions in society. The conspiracy of silence existed primarily within the church. I don’t know anyone outside the church who had any inkling of the extent of the abuse.
Although bishops and popes have met with abuse survivors many times over the course of the past 15 years, and Pope Francis has begun to hold bishops accountable by removing them from ministry for harboring abusive priests, many people hurt by this scandal have implied that “the Catholic Church has done nothing” until the response becomes more punitive. But some psychologists have pointed out that bishops who disown an abusive former priest and cast him into the streets without any financial support are actually creating a greater danger than by placing him in psychiatrist treatment. From your perspective, what’s the most helpful thing for the Catholic Church to do with abusive former priests?
I can’t answer that question, except by posing another one: Why has it taken the church 15 years to begin to hold bishops accountable for enabling and covering up such heinous crimes?
Looking back at your journalism career so far, what are your biggest regrets?
That I remain a two-fingered typist. Seriously, my biggest continuing regret has always been the most recent story I did—the reporting steps I could, in hindsight, have taken to make each of those stories better.
What do you hope people will take away from your life and work?
That I have been most fortunate to have had the opportunity to cover so many of the most important stories of my lifetime; and that some of the work my colleagues and I have done is a good reminder, especially to young people, that journalism done well can make a difference in all of our lives.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about clergy sex abuse, what would it be?
Despite the headwinds, listen to the survivors and then take a strong stand.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.
Thank you for reading and for your feedback. Let's continue to pray for peace and healing in our church.