The real-life ‘Spotlight’ journalist shares stories of his career

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(Photo by Michael Marsland)

It was fear of a new boss that prompted longtime Boston Globe journalist Walter “Robbie” Robinson and his investigative team to get the ball rolling on its Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the Catholic church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests in the Boston archdiocese. 

Robinson, now editor-at-large of the Boston Globe, led the newspaper’s investigative Spotlight team for seven years until 2006. In 2002, the team began the series of stories revealing that for years the church knew about and covered up sexual abuse in its ranks — sometimes with secret settlements with victims. The team’s investigative efforts were portrayed in the Academy Award-winning 2015 movie “Spotlight” (in which Michael Keaton played Robinson).

Robinson and other Boston Globe reporters reacted like “deer caught in the headlights” when their new boss, Marty Baron, asked his staff during his first news meeting with them about a lawsuit involving one priest, the journalist told the audience during a well-attended conversation with Dr. Richard Schottenfeld, head of Davenport College, in the college’s common room. The judge had put the records that the church provided the plaintiff under seal, and Baron asked the reporters what was being done to gain access to them.

“Everybody said, ‘What are you talking about?’” recalled Robinson. “”Judges seal records.” Baron argued that the newspaper should go to court to obtain them.

Later, Baron called Robinson and Ben Bradlee Jr., then an assistant manager editor at the Globe, into his office to ask the Spotlight team to investigate the case involving the priest, John Geoghan.

“Out of sheer terror of the new boss, we [the Spotlight team] basically called anybody we could think of who knew anything about the subject,” Robinson told his audience. “Because we did that, we stumbled upon a lawyer who told us that the church made these secret settlements and kept it quiet. [This case] was the tip of an iceberg.”

At the time, the investigative team thought that they might uncover a dozen or so such cases of priest abuse, said Robinson. The first story in the Boston Globe revealed how more than 100 people had come forward with tales of abuse by Geoghan over a 30-year period. By the time the team completed its series on the church scandal, it reported on sexual abuse involving some 250 Catholic priests in the Boston area.

“We kind of stumbled around in the dark,” said Robinson of the team’s investigative work. “When you run into an elephant in the dark, you try to figure out ‘what is this?’ It was more challenging than a lot of stories investigative stories reporters do because the church was not cooperative and there’s no public records filing that [the church] has to do. So we had to get innovative in how to piece the information together on this. We had to get a lot of people to talk, which was difficult because it involved victims and priests who had never told their own family members.”

In addition to the challenges of accessing information, the Spotlight team was also under pressure because “this is not a story you want to get wrong in a city like Boston,” Robinson said, noting that Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who was the archbishop of Boston from 1984 until he resigned in 2002 as a result of the scandal, had many supporters, including Roman Catholic parishioners, political leaders, and members of the business community.

Once the Boston Globe began its series, “it was like we ripped the cover off a Pandora box,” Robinson said. The Globe’s story went viral, and within a day, the Spotlight reporters were getting emails from victims of priest abuse from around the world.

Noting that just two years earlier, when there was no Internet, the Globe story might have been buried, Robinson said that digital technology allowed the newspaper’s stories to be picked up and read internationally. “For me as a journalist, that’s an extraordinary milestone,” said Robinson, whose career at the Globe spans three decades. He added that the series of stories about the church scandal still have impact today.

When the first story about Geoghan came out, Cardinal Law held a press conference and said that the priest had only been reinstated in a parish after he had been “cleared” by two physicians, Robinson recalled. The Spotlight team then investigated the physicians, only to learn that one was Law’s family doctor and the other was a psychiatrist at a Catholic hospital who himself had been accused of abusing female patients.

“That was a fatal blow for the cardinal and his supporters,” said Robinson. “When that story ran, supporters and donors just walked away from him. He was forced to resign.”

Robinson also spoke about other major stories and experiences during his journalistic career, including an investigation of looted artwork during World War II, the looting of archaeological sites and antiquities for profit, and the practices of debt collectors. During his Globe career, he served as a local, state and national political reporter, and he covered the White House during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also served as the Globe’s Middle East bureau chief, covering the first Persian Gulf War.

Covering Reagan’s presidency was “a joy,” he said, partly due to the fact that the former president traveled infrequently and that such travels were “determined by Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.” He said that, in hindsight, it is now apparent that Reagan’s dementia had already begun in his second term.

“I worry sometimes that anybody who’s 70 years old is taking on a job like that,” said Robinson. “Now we have somebody who’s 70 years old and borderline obese who’s taking on the presidency.”

He told his audience that he is grateful for his journalism career, saying, “There aren’t many careers you could pick where you can have as much fun, where you can see so much history up close, where you can be responsible — and it’s an enormous responsibility and one we don’t always rise to — for what so many people know about important events and moments in all of our lives.”

During a question-and-answer period with the audience, Robinson decried the influence of “fake news” sites and admitted he doesn’t know the solution to that problem, but said that “more vigilance by Facebook would help.” However, in response to arguments by some that real issues didn’t get covered during the recent presidential election, Robinson countered, “There was a tremendous amount of good reporting done, especially about the president-elect.” He called the final election result “distressing,” but added, “It’s not new. People have been voting against their own interests forever.”

In response to a question about whether his career interfered with his family life, Robinson answered “It’s not a job, it’s a calling. News happens, and now it happens 24/7, so it does kind of get in the way of your life.”

Noting that Robinson has shed light on important events and issues throughout his career, Schottenfeld said that his career “points to the critical importance of people taking on this calling as a profession. Thank you for doing it,” he told the journalist, whose visit was sponsored jointly by the Poynter and Lustman fellowships.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,