Spotlight’s Forgotten Reporter and Her Crisis of Faith
By Celia Wexler
May 11, 2016
Last month, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama jokingly called out noted “journalists” in the room - Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber — who played investigative reporters in the film Spotlight. The story was about reporters who had the resources and the autonomy “to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable,” he said. Given the current state of journalism, Obama joked, the film was the best “fantasy” flick since Star Wars.
The film earned its Academy awards through its deft retelling of the story of the investigative reporting team that uncovered the systematic cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests in the archdiocese of Boston. But Spotlight did not tell the whole story.
The Globe’s expose was published in early 2002. Nine months before, in March 2001, the alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix, published its story, “Cardinal sin,” which explored in depth allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law was complicit in the abuse cover-up. Kristen Lombardi wrote that story and seven subsequent stories. The Globe’s reporting did not acknowledge her work.
In the film, her role was consigned to a throw-away line, when Ruffalo dismisses the Phoenix as a weak and under-resourced rival that “nobody reads.”
I interviewed Lombardi, now an award-winning investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, for my forthcoming book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Anger and Hope. Lombardi was born and raised Catholic. The abuse scandal not only challenged her as a journalist. It changed her relationship to Catholicism.
In January 2001, both The Globe and the Boston Herald ran small stories on the ongoing lawsuits against one abusive priest, John Geoghan. The stories mentioned that Cardinal Law had been added as a defendant. To Lombardi and her editor, that meant that “this particular attorney must have had some pretty damning evidence to convince a judge to do this.”
If Law had been added as a defendant, she said, the implication was that he was “somehow complicit.” Her editor asked her to watch and see how the dailies followed up because “if they do nothing, that’s kind of a big deal.”
Boston’s two dailies remained quiet. The Phoenix followed up. Lombardi scanned clips not only from local papers but sought out abuse cases from other parts of the country. As early as 1985, Jason Berry’s stories on priestly abuse had been published in the National Catholic Reporter. There had been incidents in Dallas and California.
She sought out the attorneys involved in the other abuse cases, trying to determine whether a Cardinal had ever been named as a defendant in any of the earlier lawsuits. “They had never heard of it,” she said. “This small article in The Globe and Herald was seen elsewhere in the country as big news” by the people pursuing these abuse cases, she said.
So the Phoenix decided to focus on Law, and the institution. “What did the Church know and when?
“It was a very difficult story to report,” she said. “Victims were not speaking out.” They “felt very beaten down, and unheard and very, very skeptical and wary” both of reporters and of the “general public’s response to them.” The anger was not primarily directed at Geoghan, but at the church.
Depositions from some parents, she said, were “really chilling.” Mothers of abused children complained to senior church officials, and were told that “they would take care of it, not to worry.” Later, they would discover that Geoghan had been shuttled to another parish.
Lombardi dreaded calling the priests and monsignors who had lied to those mothers. Although she no longer was a practicing Catholic, disagreeing with the institutional church’s position on sexual issues and the role of women, she felt “a real kind of fear,” she said. “You don’t challenge the church. ... Me asking these challenging, hard-hitting questions of church officials. You’re not supposed to do that, right?”
Even though she was convinced she was doing the right thing, “I had some serious dreams about Cardinal Law coming after me, about being sent to hell.”
It was her intense desire to achieve some justice for the victims that kept her going. Over the years, Lombardi has written ground-breaking series on rape victims. But the victims of clergy abuse are different because the abuse was “an attack on their faith, she said. “I felt like they really needed some justice. Maybe I could give it to them by telling their stories.”
Lombardi said that those who orchestrated the cover-up were “driven by a desire to protect the church.” That motive, she said, is “pretty common” for all institutions, whose first reaction is to “circle the wagons ... and try to put the scandal to rest before it explodes.”
But the church is supposed to be better than other institutions, she said. That’s what made its conduct “so outrageous.” She added that over the years the church amassed a sophisticated understanding of pedophilia. “They knew more about pedophilia than anybody else.” But the church chose to ignore that knowledge, and opted to protect its own reputation, rather than the children in its care.
When I interviewed her in early 2013, more than a decade after the Law story, she said she couldn’t conceive of ever returning to the church. I contacted Lombardi a few months ago to see if her feelings about Catholicism had changed in light of a somewhat more tolerant church under Pope Francis. “No, my views on the church have not changed since we spoke,” she emailed back.
When we spoke two years ago, I speculated that perhaps the value of “bearing witness” and “giving voice to the voiceless,” bedrock Christian values, meant that journalism was her new substitute for religious faith.
“Journalism has become my religion, I’ll put it that way,” Lombardi said. “I truly do believe that I’m doing righteous work by giving voice to the voiceless. I really do.”