Excerpt: The Sins of the Fathers

The entries below detail the Boston Globe newspaper's Pulitzer-winning investigation into sexual abuses within the Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts

Friday, July 27, 2001: Kristen Lombardi, one of four staff reporters at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix, was the only journalist to pay close attention to the growing number of lawsuits naming Father John J. Geoghan as a serial child-abuser. Geoghan had already been arrested; his alleged crime spree was no secret. But as a lifelong Catholic, Lombardi was stunned to think that Cardinal Bernard Law might have kept Geoghan in ministry despite his crimes, knowingly endangering more children. For two months in the spring, she sequestered herself in the basement of the courthouse with Geoghan's dockets in her lap, reading what little was in the public domain. The juiciest records were kept in the back of the clerk's office, shielded by a series of sympathetic judges who had sealed all church-related lawsuits from public scrutiny at the request of Wilson Rogers Jr., the church's testy attorney.

These limits were Lombardi's frustration. She had to rely on old-fashioned shoe-leather. One prominent therapist told her that Geoghan's reputation was widely known among church officials not just in Boston but around the country. "Oh, Father Geoghan," he said, "he is notorious. He has been treated by so many people, at nearly every psychiatric hospital in the country."

She never proved the hospitalizations. But her article, called "Cardinal Sin," appeared on March 23, 2001. It was a powerful, though not entirely dispositive, expose of Law's role in covering up Geoghan's crimes. Cardinal Law and his administration had allowed the story to go uncontested. Kristen Lombardi routinely left messages for chancery spokesmen, frequently faxed over lists of questions, but never once heard back.

Unfortunately for her, she did not return to the courthouse to monitor new procedural filings in the Geoghan case. If she had, she would have noticed that buried deep in Law's formal response to one of the allegations-typically these documents were a litany of "I deny's" and "Never happend's"-was a single, damning "Yes." Law admitted to receiving a handwritten letter from Maryetta Dussourd in which she detailed the abuse her seven boys experienced with Geoghan, the family pastor, but returned him to ministry anyway.

To Lombardi's chagrin, the Boston Herald discovered the court record in July 2001 and ran a cover story. This shook up Law sufficiently to cause him to issue an explanation, his first direct remarks on the Geoghan case.

"Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next," he declared forcefully in his weekly column for The Pilot, Boston's diocesan newspaper. "It seems so obvious, but this is something that we have learned along the way. I only wish that the knowledge that we have today had been available to us earlier. It is fair to say, however, that society has been on a learning curve with regard to the sexual abuse of minors. The Church, too, has been on a learning curve. We have learned, and we will continue to learn."

Over at The Boston Globe, columnist Eileen McNamara read this with suspicious eyes. Why, if the cardinal favored revealing problems over burying them, had the court records to the Geoghan suits been sealed at the church's request? Why was he still endorsing secrecy?

"Law has been lucky so far," she wrote in her regular column. "Judicial concern for fairness has dove-tailed nicely with his penchant for secrecy. Only the resolve of the plaintiffs to see this suit through to the end can shine a light into corners of the church that the cardinal would prefer to keep forever in shadow."

Her column appeared on Sunday, July 29, the last day of a long era.

Monday, July 30, 2001: The slightly Semitic, boyish man with the funny accent who was presiding over the Monday morning editorial meeting at the Boston Globe was the paper's new editor, Marty Baron, on his very first day in the office. Baron's plans for the Globe were still unclear to his new staff. He would endorse general principles, saying, for instance, "The obligation is to report fairly, accurately, and objectively," something everybody thought they were already doing. Adding to his mystery, Baron was the only outsider ever to edit the Globe in its 126-year history. The Globe had always been a family-owned paper, edited by Taylor scions or trustees. But in 1993, The New York Times snapped up the broadsheet for a spectacular sum, $1.1 billion. Hiring a new editor from outside was the last step in sealing the corporate takeover.

Baron was an overnight industry hotshot. Being executive editor at The Miami Herald for the previous 18 months had given him plenty of material for proving his mettle. Two of the nation's biggest news stories had unfolded in his backyard: the Elian Gonzalez soap opera, involving an international custody battle over an adorable Cuban child orphaned at sea, and the last stand of Al Gore, wherein the presidential aspirant's dreams were scotched in a bizarre election-night calamity of confusing ballots, lost precincts, charges of disenfranchisement, and Supreme Court intervention. In April Baron had been named Editor of the Year by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In the course of the editorial meeting he asked people to throw around a few ideas for priorities in future coverage. Somebody brought up McNamara's column on Geoghan, and Baron wondered what future coverage was being contemplated. The shaking heads told him: none. "There's a confidentiality order, Marty," one of them said.

"I don't know what the laws of Massachusetts are, but in Florida typically these things were more open. Can't we get beyond the he-said-she-said aspects of this, with the lawyer saying one thing and the church saying something else? Have we considered challenging the confidentiality order?"

Among journalists, Floridians seemed to have an almost religious appetite for public documents even when it seemed in bad taste, as when the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel and others sued for the autopsy photos of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt, over his wife's teary objections. Taking on the grieving widow of an icon was one thing. Suing the most powerful institution in the state was another. Baron's staff looked at him blankly. Nobody thought what he was proposing was especially perilous or foolhardy, just unthinkable.

"Look, why don't we take a look at that as a possibility?" Baron offered brightly. "Ben," he said to Ben Bradlee Jr., who happened to be the son and namesake of the legendary Washington Post executive editor who had brought down the Nixon administration, "do you think there's something there?"

Bradlee agreed to have the staff investigate.

Later, as Baron strode through the newsroom, one staffer kindly offered a bit of sotto voce advice. "Are you aware of the history between the Globe and the Catholic Church?"

"Uh, a little bit," he said. "I read 'Common Ground.'"

"I just wanted to let you know what you were stepping into," his concerned employee said.

Baron appreciated the well-meaning warning. "But it seems kind of immaterial to me, because maybe it wouldn't be my first choice to be challenging the Catholic Church, but on the other hand, the story is right in front of us. We have no choice."

By the end of that week, the paper's lawyers rendered their opinion on the matter of challenging the confidentiality order: Baron had First Amendment grounds to review the records in any ongoing litigation, especially one involving an institution as prominent as this one. There was a fifty-fifty chance of success.

Before taking the risk, Baron put out feelers to Walter Robinson, who headed up the paper's investigative unit, called the Spotlight Team. His e-mail blinked onto Robinson's screen at 4:36 P.M. on August 1: "What do you think about this Cardinal Law story? Is it something we should go looking at?"

"That's a little bold," Robinson laughed. The notion of the investigative unit of the principal newspaper in town investigating the Catholic Church was definitely not part of the normal course of events. He was impressed. "That's a bold move by our new editor!"

To answer Baron's question, he reread Lombardi's reporting for the Phoenix and called various attorneys specializing in priestly abuse cases, all of whom hinted broadly at cover-up and conspiracy.

"We can go deep," Robinson reported back confidently. "We don't know much more about Geoghan, but that's just the start of it. It's clear there's something big out there."

Baron set it all in motion.

For the next three weeks, the Spotlight Team followed a two-pronged game plan. One goal was to learn as much as possible about the life and crimes of Geoghan. The other was wider: to see if he was part of a broad pattern within the church. This latter inquiry proved the most tedious. Without much effort the reporters were able to compile the names of attorneys known to have filed suits against the church, but most said they couldn't talk about old cases because of confidentiality accords. So the reporters tapped into a public electronic database that allowed them to compile a tally of each of the lawyers' cases. They did the same for the Rogers firm, the archdiocese's only legal counsel. By cross-referencing these lists, they found more than a dozen suits in common-strongly suggesting abuse claims. Like the Geoghan case, they had all been impounded and sealed by court order. But from the records it was possible to ascertain the identities of a number of alleged perpetrators.

To prove that these suspects were priests, they compared their names with the annual directories the Boston archdiocese published listing all nine hundred priests and specifics about their assignments, like residential addresses and parish responsibilities. Their suspicions proved correct. Then they noticed something peculiar in the directories. Priests who had been accused in legal papers were likely to have had repeated periods when they were listed as "between assignments" or on "sick leave." Thumbing through the pages, they found this was a relatively common designation.

"Here's one that says 'emergency response'-what the f--k is that?" Robinson said.

"How about this one: 'lend-lease,' like they shipped him out of town."

"Peter J. Frost, 'health leave.' Lists a civilian address."

Matt Carroll, the Spotlight Team's expert in computer-assisted reporting, went to work. Perusing directories dating back seventeen years, he built a broad database of priests' career trajectories. Most passed those years quite unremarkably. However, a significant minority were suddenly listed as "unassigned" or on "sick leave" for a period of time, then returned to ministry, then removed, then returned. Surely some of them suffered from chronic poor health. But perhaps for a few the diagnosis was child abuser.

More than 100 names emerged from Carroll's database as having suspicious assignment patterns-including nearly every one of the names mentioned in court papers. Many were currently serving as ministers in some capacity.

"My God," Robinson thought as the numbers added up. "What if there really are more Geoghans? What if there were twelve more Geoghans? What if it came to fifteen?"

August 15, 2001 to December 24, 2001: The Globe's legal challenge to see the Geoghan files slowly wended through the courts while drawing little attention to what the Spotlight Team was up to. A first hearing was held in September. By luck of standard judicial rotation, it was assigned to Suffolk Superior Court judge Constance M. Sweeney, who was also overseeing the eighty-six lawsuits Garabedian had brought relating to John Geoghan. Sweeney was a tough, independent jurist who was disinclined to give the church any deferential treatment, despite the fact that all her formal education up to law school had been in Roman Catholic institutions.

Wilson Rogers Jr. made his arguments strenuously. Any communication between a priest and his superiors was protected by the constitutional separation of church and state, he said. If these cases went to trial, he understood that the obligations of a civil society demanded that the case be argued in open court. But before that time, he felt the church maintained its unique status and any ruling to the contrary "would be highly prejudicial to the Constitutional protections afforded these Defendants."

This didn't dissuade lawyers for the Globe, who had advocated a uniform approach to civil litigation: if pretrial materials like depositions, medical reports, and personnel files were deemed sufficiently important to merit public attention in other cases, if we believed that an open court system furthered the cause of democracy, the same rules should apply in this suit.

Even if that were true, Rogers countered, the Globe had no standing in the current litigation.

When it came to child welfare, Globe lawyers responded, the public had an overwhelming and abiding interesting in judicial transparency.

Sweeney, who took until November 20 to make her ruling, staggered the church lawyers by siding with the Globe. The public's right to know, she found, overrode the church's right to privacy. Rogers appealed immediately, staying her ruling, and reiterated his concerns before Massachusetts Appeals Court judge Cynthia Cohen. But on Christmas Eve, Cohen rejected Rogers's defense, setting in motion the ultimate release of a trove of more than ten thousand pages of internal records on January 23.

Rogers went back to Judge Sweeney and pleaded for a few extra weeks, but she was resolute. "We are not going to delay any longer in making them public," she snapped.

Milton, Massachusetts: The gentle twenty-six-year-old man sitting in the passenger seat of Walter Robinson's car pointed down a long, windswept drive that angled off Highland Street toward a Georgian-revival-style brick mansion tucked in a thicket of firs. A small shingle, whose paint was discolored and cracked, identified the facility as Our Lady's Hall. Rumors had swirled for years about this place. In whispers it was Pedophile Palace, the final home for priests who had cycled through psychiatric treatment without success and were considered beyond help, the worst of the worst, too dangerous even to cut loose from the priesthood for they would certainly strike over and over again.

According to the twenty-six-year-old, Father Ronald H. Paquin had spent the better part of a decade here. Sacha Pfeiffer, the Spotlight Team member who sat in the backseat, was able to confirm this by conducting a search on the Our Lady's address through a comprehensive database called AutoTrack. To her surprise, she also found that perhaps a dozen other residents there dovetailed with the Spotlight Team's own database of suspected abusers. Intrigued, Walter Robinson went to the Milton Town Hall for a tenancy history going back to 1970, and found an unbroken correlation. The archdiocese would say on that Our Lady's was "transitional housing" for priests with troubles, like alcoholism. The truth seemed much darker.

Robinson had arbitrarily assigned suspicious priests to each of the Spotlight members, and Paquin fell to Pfeiffer. His story was wild. It included a predawn accident in which he lost control of his car, causing the death of one of his passengers, James Francis, who was just sixteen. Paquin was never charged. But in the 1990s, the church settled at least six sex abuse suits against him for a total of about $500,000. He had lived at Our Lady's since. However, in 1998 Cardinal Law inexplicably returned Paquin to ministry, records had shown, only to remove him again following new allegations, in 2000.

Word of Pfeiffer's reporting reached the twenty-six-year-old, and he found his way to her. Until that moment, he had never considered the sex play between him and Paquin, which had begun when he was twelve and ended when he broke it off at seventeen, as abuse. Paquin had told him he was conducting a scientific study of sexuality. Of course, he scarcely believed that. But until his senior year, when he met the woman who would become his wife, he had thought of the masturbation and oral sex sessions as a normal and natural aspect of their tight friendship. He loved Paquin and considered him a father figure. Over the years since, they had remained platonic friends.

Pfeiffer told him about the other suits, involving other young men like himself. "That was the turning point for me," he told Pfeiffer. He felt betrayed. He hired a lawyer. And told Pfeiffer something startling, that he had even shared a bed with the priest at Our Lady's Hall. The warehouse for superdangerous sexual predators, it seemed, was as strict about chastity as a brothel.

Robinson drove the car to the crest of the hill and parked. To test the young man's claim, Robinson and Pfeiffer asked him to lead them on a tour of the grounds. They needed to see how familiar the source seemed with the place. He did not equivocate. Mostly when he had visited Paquin, he would sneak through a door to the basement, which he walked to without hesitation, or climb through his bedroom window-the tall one around the side of the house. In that bedroom on two occasions, he said, the priest had performed oral sex on him. Once he spent the night.

Suddenly a door high up on the side of the building swung open and a priest came to the balcony to inquire after their presence. Though he was wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, Robinson recognized him as Father Edward T. Kelley, one of the men who had surfaced suspiciously in their database. Several cases against Kelley had been settled out of court. But for years, he had also been a counselor at Our Lady's. Kelley was on their "to-do" list-a known molester assigned to counsel other molesters. It couldn't get more twisted than that.

Yes, it could. Behind Kelley in the doorway they saw what appeared to be a small teenage boy.

"You're Father Kelley, aren't you?" Robinson asked.

Kelley grew suspicious. "You'd better call downtown," he said, easing the door closed.

The three stood on the lawn in stunned and scandalized amazement.

"Did we see what we thought we saw?" Robinson asked.

"It's almost jaw-dropping," Pfeiffer said. "You almost can't believe your eyes."

Friday, January 4, 2002: An intense calculus went into determining when the Spotlight Team would begin publishing its series. Their campaign to get the Geoghan trove had alerted their competitors across town at the Boston Herald that they were up to something big. The church had to make all documents available by January 23-in the meantime, church officials were reviewing each one to decide whether to appeal for protection of individual exhibits. But once the documents were public, they would become available to any publication, not just the Globe. Could the Globe risk waiting till then to publish its first major stories?

They decided to publish in the Sunday paper, on January 6, using whatever they had already unearthed. Already, they had found enough for a sickening story about John Geoghan and the cardinal who enabled him.

Robinson was scrambling to finish the last major piece of reporting, which was to try and scare a comment out of the archdiocese. He had been seeking an interview with the cardinal since mid-December. He had called again two days ago. They were planning to publish over the weekend, he had said, so he needed to talk to Law by Saturday. That was a big heads-up. Still, no one called back. "It has to be worse than covering the Kremlin under Brezhnev," he complained.

Tonight, he finally reached Donna Morrissey, the cardinal's spokeswoman, and gave her a bit of a lecture. "This is not that hard. We need a comment. We've been waiting for weeks."

Unbeknownst to him, at about that moment, Law was on the telephone with Marty Baron, the editor. "I just wanted you to know I'm not going to give an interview to the Spotlight Team," he said.

"I respect your decision," Baron said. "That's your prerogative. I wish you had responded differently, but it's your decision to make."

Late in the evening, Donna Morrissey reiterated the news to Robinson.

"Doesn't he even want to see the questions? I'll fax a copy of the questions," Robinson offered.

The Cardinal, she said, is not interested in seeing the questions.

Not even about child abuse? Not even knowing it will go on the front page, the powerful Globe going against the powerful church?

"Correct," she said.