What if the Boston Globe in 2001 had not put three tenacious reporters on an almost impossible investigative story — ferret out a sick corruption in the Catholic Church and save parishes from child predators? What if the newspaper decided this work was too hard, took too much time, and was running the pay meter well into overtime? What if the newspaper feared being bullied by one of the most powerful institutions in the world?
This was before computers, Excel spreadsheets, and big data. This was an effort that took determination, courage, and sharp detective skills and pencils to comb through old, dusty, forgotten diocesan annual reports that held one of the keys to understanding that clergy "absences" from work really meant that sexually abusive priests were being protected by the church, down to funding stipends for those behind bars. That maneuvering for sealed court documents, relentless reporting, and resurrecting old sources was the only way to shine a spotlight on abuses that went on for years.
That was the story — made into a film — that woke many Catholics to the fact that the church was riddled with what one might politely call "personnel problems" of the vilest kind, a religious precursor to the #MeToo movement. This was the time when those journalists, most of them raised Catholic, concluded that the real story had to be uncovered. They had to be journalists first.
More coverage of the PA grand jury report
Hundreds of priests named in grand jury report | Grand jury: A child porn ring in Pittsburgh diocese | Report says cover-up began at the top | Dozens of pages shielded from public | Maria Panaritis: Thank the law, not the Men of God | Victim: 'It's your word against God's' | Key findings from each diocese | Mike Newall: If the grand jury report doesn't force a reckoning for the Catholic Church, it's time to walk away | Christine Flowers: Channeling sorrow and anger after reading the clergy abuse report
After the Globe investigation revealed that some 300 priests were involved in a pedophilic pact in Boston, that same situation was found to be true in other cities. Now we have the story in six dioceses in Pennsylvania that include cities like Harrisburg, Scranton, and Pittsburgh that have large communities of Catholics. A total of 300 priests were named in the grand jury report, the majority of them never punished, some deceased, and others still on the street.
The grand jury report that was released this week is an example of how the press is not the enemy, but the reason that information under lock and key came to light. Because of the press, victims of priestly sexual abuse are at last vindicated.
The press is a fallible institution that sometimes gets something like this story very, very right. The film Spotlight may have been the impetus for newspapers to continue or start digging on a story that was as deep as the secrets the Vatican holds. It certainly was supportive of the legal authorities trying to find and out perpetrators and protectors, some at the highest ranks in the church.
Even more coincidental is that this is the week that some 300 newspapers came together to explain to their readers that the press is an essential counterbalance to wrongdoing, a voice for those who might never be heard, and a presence at some of the nation's saddest moments, such as at the border where immigrant children were torn from their parents. Who would have told this story to the American people in real time?
The press now is being demonized by a president who has used a verbal cudgel to persuade some Americans that the media is the problem, negative coverage of him is made up, and reporters should selectively be barred from events that need to be covered. He wishes reporters ill, and the death of five reporters at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis may be the first major manifestation of how denigration of the profession can lead to death.
Casting the press as the enemy of the people is not like demanding corrections from news organizations that make mistakes — sometimes big ones in tone and fact. But the Fourth Estate has been assigned to peer into our most cherished institutions — local governments right down to school boards and town councils and up to the highest office in the land. The best way to destroy democracy is to sow mistrust and silence critics. This is being done in a country with the birthright of free speech.
No surprise that the Boston Globe played the principal part in urging editorial writers and owners of newspapers across the country to explain that the press works for the people. Maybe the editors of the News and Tribune in Jeffersonville, Ind., said it best:
"Our leaders — be they presidents of the nation or of the city council — do not get to choose to whom they are accountable. They are accountable to the citizenry. We intend to hold them to it. To do anything less is dereliction of our duty."
Ditto for the Catholic Church.