Was the Boston Globe’s Church Abuse Scoop the Last Great Print Story?

Or the first great Web story? A conversation with investigative reporter Walter Robinson.

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter from the Boston Globe, Walter V. Robinson.
Journalist Walter Robinson and actor Mark Ruffalo attend the Boston premiere of Spotlight, Oct. 28, 2015.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty

Newspapers make rare appearances in movies these days, and when they do they usually function as a throwaway detail. (Spider-Man works at a made-up New York rag.) But the new film Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, is arguably the most unabashedly romanticized filmic depiction of hardworking print journalists since All The President’s Men.

The movie, opening Nov. 6, focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team, which helped uncover the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal in early 2002. The leader of that team, which went on to win a Pulitzer for its work, was Walter Robinson, a Globe veteran, who is played by Michael Keaton in the film. (The other members of the on-screen investigative unit include Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams.)

I spoke to Robinson by phone recently. He left the Globe in 2006 to teach journalism at Northeastern, then returned to the paper last year as editor-at-large. Robinson also took some time over the past several years to advise the filmmakers. He was chatty and warm and, appealingly, made no effort to hide his excitement about the movie.

Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the changing role of the church in Boston, Pope Francis, how the Internet helped blow the abuse story wide open, and whether movie stars are as good-looking as the people they portray. The conversation has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: I guess I can call you Robby since everyone in the movie does, even people who don’t know you.

Walter Robinson: Yeah, I know. It’s not my real name. But whatever.

The movie presents Boston as being unwilling to confront what was going on in the Catholic Church. In the last 13 years, has the relationship between the city and the church changed?

Yeah. One sort of very concrete example of the change is that the church always had its way with the Massachusetts legislature. It had its own lobbyist on Beacon Hill, and if there was legislation that the cardinal did not approve of, it was very rare for such legislation to pass. They had more power than any other—pardon me for saying this—special interest.

You’re allowed to say it.

Yeah, I can say it now. There is a law in Massachusetts called a “mandated reporting law.” That is, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers are required by law to report any suspicions they have about abuse of children, whether it’s sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse. If they don’t report it, they themselves are subject to criminal penalties.

In Massachusetts, there had been attempts over a number of years to include clergymen under that law. Those attempts always failed. My recollection is that organizations of Protestant ministers and Jewish congregations in Massachusetts had always supported that legislation, and the Catholic Church had not, and therefore it never passed. Within months of the moment that this story crashed onto the shore, in 2002, that legislation went through both houses of the legislature and was signed by the governor really fast. The church lost almost all of its political clout in Massachusetts as a consequence of the clergy scandal. What that says is that public confidence in the church, in the institution, eroded very swiftly. I don’t think it’s come back all that much.

The movie presents people in the city—including people at the Globe—as being resistant to accepting the story.

Part of Tom McCarthy’s plot is that the major institutions in Boston, in some cases knowingly, turned a blind eye to what was going on. The opening scene has priests being taken into custody, but then a bishop comes in, and no charges are brought. We actually had probably five or six instances of that.

When it came to the newspaper, there are hints throughout the film that the Globe itself was unwilling to or missed signals or missed clues that should have or could have prompted the paper to have done this sooner.

The movie presents your character as either repressing the knowledge of what was going on or not acting as strongly on the knowledge of what was going on as you could have.

Yeah. Part of the reason for that being in the movie is that there was a story the Globe actually ran in 1993. The Boston Herald also ran this story, and both papers buried it inside, about this one lawyer, Eric MacLeish [played in the film by Billy Crudup] who basically sent out a press release saying that he had found 20 priests in the archdiocese [who had been accused of misconduct]. Now, in truth, looking back on it and knowing Eric MacLeish, that was Eric MacLeish trying to get attention to himself so he could get more clients, which he did. We published this story and we buried it.

When we started our investigation eight years later, that clip didn’t surface. None of us remembered it. Back in 1993 I think I had been metro editor for about a month when that story ran. I had no memory of it, although I actually think I was on a golf vacation.

The movie is true to the amount of golf you played.

Yeah right.

You’re sort of the hero of the movie, but I thought it essentially showed you as standing in for the collective conscience of the city, a city that in some sense knew what was going on and didn’t do enough.

You’re the first person who’s picked up on that. At least the first person who has mentioned it to me. Keaton not only played me, but as you suggested, he was also a metaphorical character representing all of the influential Irish Catholics in Boston, maybe journalists in Boston, who maybe looked at the church as being much more iconic an institution then they should have perceived it to be.

Do you think that is an accurate portrait of the way these groups of powerful people in Boston viewed the church?

I think that’s broadly true, but I would also say this, and I don’t say this as a defense, I state it as a fact. There had been isolated cases—usually, almost always one-off cases—of clergy sexual abuse around the country since the mid-1980s. Back then, before the Internet, none of us at other papers that I am aware of knew of these other cases. We had our own case in the Fall River Diocese, which is referenced in the film.


We could get no records and basically there was no evidence that that was anything else other than another isolated instance. The church was very successful around the country, when these things cropped up, in persuading everybody that this was one single abhorrent priest. Nobody ever thought to question whether, “Well, maybe that’s just the one who got caught, and there are a lot of others doing it.” In every archdiocese in the country, there was a major newspaper. Every major newspaper was just as deferential to the local Catholic hierarchy as the Globe.

The one thing that struck me as being slightly off about the movie was that everyone seemed shocked: “Oh my God. The Catholic Church?” Really? I remember being 15 and people would make jokes about altar boys.

Well, I think it was the enormity of it and the scale of it and the extent to which, whatever, 95, 98 percent of it had been kept hidden from the public for so long. The records we got in Boston were pretty breathtaking. The imperative was to protect the institution and protect the priests. They did that by moving the priests around and by, in many cases, talking families out of making complaints and when they did, get lawyers, bringing them into the chancery so they wouldn’t go to court.

Look, I was an altar boy. I went to a Catholic boys’ high school, which it turned out had its own share of abusers, although I think after I graduated. I don’t remember when I was a kid knowing about or hearing jokes about altar boys and priests. Maybe I did and I forgot, or maybe I did and I didn’t get it. When you’re a Catholic growing up, you didn’t learn about sex.

You should have grown up in Berkeley like I did.

Right. I’ve had many, many people come up to me, including some adult friends of mine who told me about how they were abused as children. 

How do you think Pope Francis has handled the scandal?

I think from the view of American Catholics, he’s doing better than either of his predecessors. The American Catholic Church is a special case for him because there have been more changes made in the American Catholic Church then anywhere else. When he came here, almost right after he got off the plane, he commended the American bishops for how they had handled the scandal. People said, “You’ve got to be shitting me,” because the bishops handled the scandals here almost always with a gun to their heads and a lot of them haven’t handled it at all.

What does that tell you about his comment?

My perception of that is he was speaking of the American bishops and thinking of all the other bishops in all the other countries where they don’t even have a policy of automatically removing priests from the ministry when they abuse children.

We call that setting the bar very low.

Yeah. One thing I like about Francis is, if the church exists for the benefit of the clergy, then that makes enabling this kind of abuse a lot easier. Francis has started to get the bishops out of their limousines and to remind the clergy that their job is to serve the faithful and particularly the poor. To the extent that that changes their attitudes towards their mission, it probably diminishes the chances of abuse, not just in the U.S. but in other countries.

What do you think about the adulation he’s received generally?

Look, to be honest with you, I was a lapsed Catholic before this. Now, I will go into a Catholic Church for weddings and funerals only. He’s struggling with an institution that he’s trying to bring from the late 17th into the early 18th century. How many institutions in our society bar women completely from full participation or even modest participation? The Catholic Church does that and people seem to be okay with it. I don’t understand that.

There’ve been a lot of these scandals, at Penn State and elsewhere. Do you think that the church is unique either in the frequency with which this was going on and the way they tried to cover it up, or do you think it was an institutional thing? Institutions always react the same way. They try to cover their ass.

No, I don’t agree with that. The numbers are clear: the Catholic Church is different. Six percent of priests act out sexually with minors. The church had argued before that that its percentage was at or below one percent and was the same as that for Protestant ministers et cetera. That’s just not true. The difference is that the Catholic Church requires its priests to be celibate. When we call people to a vocation in the Catholic Church you’re essentially saying, “We want you to give up all opportunities to have sexual relations with anyone for the rest of your life. You can’t have a loving relationship with anyone. You’re probably going to live alone in a drafty rectory that used to have five priests in it.” What kind of an applicant pool are you drawing from when those are the standards you impose? I frankly think you get a lot of sexually immature people who just don’t know how to behave as adults and they seek out sexual gratification with children. I don’t understand the pathology.

The fact that Francis has mentioned that, “Oh, by the way, celibacy is not something that we can quickly undo if we decide we want to.” That’s sort of a hopeful sign, so maybe 200 years from now, they’ll let priests get married.

Turning back to the film—there are very few movies made about newspapers anymore.

I know. A lot of people are saying, “This is an ode to a long lost love that can never be retrieved,” or whatever, that newspapers are a dying breed. This is a bit of a eulogy to a grieving congregation that doesn’t believe in reincarnation, or however you want to take it.

Michael Keaton as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in SPOTLIGHT.
Michael Keaton as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes in SPOTLIGHT.

Photo by Kerry Hayes. Image courtesy of Open Roads Film.

Is there anything that didn’t make the movie that you wish had?

That’s a trick question.

Because you don’t want to bash the movie?

No. [Laughs]. The idea that anybody would think it would be interesting to do a film about how we made the sausage was baffling to us. Look, the film deals with a discrete five-month period in which we developed a story and it ends on the day we broke the first story. I think that was, for a filmmaker, a great decision. I would’ve liked to have seen a four-hour film that took it through all of 2002, but nobody would go to a film like that.

What particularly notable things happened after the movie’s timeframe ends?

I think the most notable thing is the way that this just broke open so quickly. This is just in the Boston archdiocese alone. We had 300 victims contact us in the weeks after the moment the film ends. The Internet really worked …

That is interesting, given the loving way the film portrays print media and old-fashioned shoe leather reporting. A lot of journalists will likely see this movie, rightly, as a celebration of print media.

This is a story that went viral in the early sense of going viral on the Web. You do it every day now, but we posted a lot of the church’s documents online so people, not just in Boston, but people around the world and around the country could go online, read the Globe, and read the actual personnel files of the priests. We didn’t post as much as we would’ve nowadays, but we posted quite a bit. A year earlier, in 2000, I had done a story after Bush won the nomination about how he had been missing from his Air National Guard duty for 18 months. I had all the records, the real records, by the way. Nobody noticed the story. It literally fell flat. Fast forward to 2002 and when this story broke everybody knew about it. We were getting calls from New Zealand and Australia two days after our first story ran.

Did this experience with the Internet give you faith in the new era of journalism?

It’s the double-edged sword. The Internet is what has essentially written the obituary for newspapers. I’d be surprised if we’re printing on paper five years from now.

We being the Globe or we being any newspaper?

I’d say most newspapers.

Any newspaper besides the Times and the Journal, maybe.

Yeah. Maybe our Sunday edition. The economics are horrible. Look, I would submit that even though newspapers have fewer resources, reporters have far more resources at their fingertips to do reporting more efficiently. Then when you do it, when you do good reporting, it gets a lot more attention now than used to be the case. It used to be very geographically confined. That’s no longer the case. If you do a really good story, it gets around. Everybody picks it up. That’s a good thing.

Did you spend time with all the actors, and especially Michael Keaton?

Oh, yeah. We all did. The actors, to hear them tell it, they so seldom get to play real people. I’m amazed at how much homework they do. Each of them in their own way found different ways to get to know us, to learn about us. When I first met Keaton, he had already watched a whole bunch of videotapes of past appearances I had made.

It sounds like you liked him.

Yeah. It’s my understanding they all did this for whatever the minimum is because they liked the story so much.

Is there anything in the movie that’s not accurate at all? I did some reporting myself and was told that Mark Ruffalo plays a character who’s much better looking than Mark Ruffalo.

Mike Rezendes?

Yeah. I was told he’s much better looking than Mark Ruffalo.

Let me put it to you this way. How about I go off the record for a second?

Stay on the record. This is what our readers want to know.

Yeah, okay. Mike Rezendes is a good-looking guy, but he didn’t do 85 or 95 selfies with women in the Globe newsroom like Mark Ruffalo did. Mike’s a good looking guy. Ruffalo’s a movie star.

I was told he was better-looking than Ruffalo, but clearly you’re disputing this.

It’s been said that … well, I don’t want to get Rachel McAdams mad at me.

It’s a tough life you lead, having to worry about Rachel McAdams getting mad at you.