In 2002, a team of investigative journalists in Boston exposed a global institution to unprecedented scrutiny. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team uncovered rampant sexual abuse by priests in Boston and a systemic cover-up by the Catholic Church. The Pulitzer Prize-winning story grabbed national attention again last year with the movie “Spotlight,” which was based on the team’s initial five-month investigation. Robinson, editor-at-large at the Boston Globe and keynote speaker at the 2016 Asian Investigative Journalism Conference, spoke with GIJN about the techniques used to uncover the Catholic Church scandal, their importance in today’s technology-driven world, and what journalists can learn from the Spotlight story. Following is a lightly edited transcript:
The Catholic Church sexual abuse story was a huge deal and your team wrote more than 600 articles on the subject. How do you organize a project on that scale?
Well, you don’t. With most investigative projects, a lot of time and thought goes into planning the reporting, making sure that you can get the story, making sure the documents will be there, and then planning a publication date, a writing schedule, all the multimedia that needs to be done.
This story was far different. We pursued it for five months in secret, but once we started to publish it became very competitive, with news organizations all around the United States trying to catch up. So we were very pressed to keep the lead on the story and … most of those 600 stories that we did in one year were done on deadline. Many days we wrote 5,000-6,000 words in three or four hours time to meet daily deadlines. So it was quite unlike your normal investigative project once the subject became known to everybody.
What were the key techniques used to break the story?
This story was unlike most stories we do where we are dealing with public agencies and documents are easy to come by. This story was like there was a block of granite in front of us and we had a little chisel. And every day we chipped away at the granite and a little piece of the pie came to us.
We found out about one priest and then we found a victim advocate who led us to other victims and priests. We got up to 12 or 13 priests and then we realized that the number was much bigger, so we built our own database of suspect priests. This was very tedious work, going through years and years of annual [church] directories to find where different priests had been assigned. And just to do that one spreadsheet took us 31⁄2 weeks.
It had, in the end, 87 priests — almost all of whom, it turned out, were in fact priests who abused children.
Do you think your fundamental techniques would be different today?
I think the most fundamental technique in journalism — and it hasn’t changed from the 19th century to the 20th century to the 21st century — is talking to people and persuading them that it’s important for them to tell their story. Because, for me, it doesn’t matter how much technology we have and how good it is and how good the databases are — the best stories don’t come to us, we have to go to them.
And many of the people who talked to us, who had suffered serious harm, would never have talked to us if we had simply called them on the phone or sent them an email. We had to go knock on doors and get to know people and get them to trust us before they’d tell us anything. The most important part of any story is what people tell you from their own experience.
What did the Spotlight team learn from reporting that story?
I think most importantly we learned that investigative reporters have to give the same scrutiny to the most iconic organizations in our society as we give to government agencies and politicians. Agencies that do so much public good, like the Catholic Church [and] like museums, for instance — we can’t assume that the people who run them are godlike creatures. We have to assume that they’re fallible human beings. The Catholic Church really got away with this for a very long time all over the world because nobody could imagine that they could be responsible.
The other thing we learned was to look for stories in different places. That we often investigated things that whistleblowers told us about [like] corruption in government. And it’s important to do that, but what we learned from the church story is that there are many, many more important stories about victimized populations that you don’t need a whistleblower to tell you.
If you just walk out the door and look around you, you find people who have no one to turn to but us. That we’re the only ones who can bring them justice [or] end the injustice. We’re the only ones who can call attention to these kinds of problems.
Adiel Kaplan is a freelance investigative journalist based in Seattle, where she works with local news outlets including Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, and InvestigateWest.