Where were Boston’s TV stations during the Church sex abuse scandal?

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One of the best things about Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s acclaimed film about The Boston Globe’s investigation of the city’s clerical sex abuse scandal, is its integrity. Vying for six Academy Awards in Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, the film chronicles The Globe’s crucial role in bringing the issue of abuse to light and exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s part in the cover-up. The film also points the finger at The Globe itself for having been so late in coming to the scandal. More than once in the film, a question is posed to the reporters: “What took you so long?”

But what about the other media outlets at the time? Where were Boston’s crackerjack TV stations—especially the two dominant ones, Channel 4 (WBZ-TV) and Channel 5 (WCVB-TV), which, for many years, were regarded as the two finest in the country? Where were all the TV reporters?

Dan Rea, a former TV reporter who covered the Church, was among the town’s most versatile and tenacious reporters during his 31-year career with WBZ-TV. Referring to the sex abuse scandal, he said: “In retrospect, we did not take action. We (reporters) circled the wagons.”

At its core, Boston was a little too small, too inbred and incestuous. Though hundreds of heinous crimes were committed by pedophile priests against innocent children over the years, there was a collective silence in Boston and throughout the state. People wouldn’t talk; the Church wouldn’t act; and the media, including local TV stations, were nowhere to be found.

Part of the problem was cultural. Sexual abuse was among the taboos people rarely talked about, in Boston or anywhere. The idea that a man of God would violate an innocent child was beyond belief. For the victims and their families, denial was often the only way of coping.

Simple numbers were another factor. Catholics have long since made up the state’s largest religious group—53 percent in 1980. And, while falling to 44.9 percent as of 2010 (the last time a religious census was taken), Catholics are still the majority religion in the state.

Then there was the Bernard Law factor. Arriving in Boston in 1984 to replace the late Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, Law proved a more dynamic and ambitious figure than his predecessor—not only as a religious leader, but as an influential member of the establishment, dining regularly with Billy Bulger, the powerful Massachusetts Senate president. But his ties went far beyond state politics. As WBUR-FM reporter David Boeri, who covered the Catholic Church for years, said: “Here was a Cardinal in Boston who had Karl Rove on his speed dial. He was really wired to Washington.”

 

Cardinal Law also built bridges to Boston’s power brokers in the business and finance community, a large number of whom were Irish Catholic. Many graduated from Catholic colleges and universities, sat on Catholic boards, and were active in raising and donating millions of dollars to various organizations and charities, including the Catholic Church. For example, Peter Lynch, a Boston College graduate who managed the Fidelity Magellan Fund, was president of the Catholic Schools Foundation. Jack Connors, a Boston College graduate and co-founder the Boston advertising firm Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Inc., was a close advisor to Law over the years. He raised and donated millions to the Church.

Some of Boston’s media executives also enjoyed cordial relations with the Catholic Church. Paul LaCamera, a longtime, civic-minded Channel 5 executive and later WBUR-FM’s general manager, once served as vice-chairman of the board of Catholic Charities, the social services arm of the archdiocese. Jim Thistle, the late, legendary TV news director who worked at four Boston TV stations, was on the board of directors of the Boston Catholic Television Center and was chairman of the Boston Catholic Archdiocese Synod Subcommittee on Communications.

In this cultural environment, the town’s large number of Irish Catholic movers-and-shakers became a band of brothers—a kind of interlocking directorate. Extremely loyal and protective of one another, they were bound together by their Catholic faith and professional relationships with the Cardinal.

There is a revealing scene in Spotlight between The Globe’s Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and the victims’ attorney, Mitchell Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci). When the reporter learns that incriminating Church documents housed in the Springfield courthouse are missing, he is shocked:

 

Rezendes: Mitch, are you telling me that the Catholic Church removed documents from the courthouse?

 Garabedian: Look, I’m not crazy, I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced. Check the docket. You’ll see. They control everything.

 

The real Michael Rezendes, who is still on The Globe’s Spotlight team, has said he regards that scene as the most important in the film. While the Catholic Church may not have controlled “everything,” the scene underscores just how powerful the Church was at the time.

With the lack of urgency operating at so many levels, it wasn’t until May 7, 1992, that Joe Bergantino, head of the WBZ-TV’s investigative unit, became the first reporter to expose an ex-priest named James Porter. Bergantino’s exposé and follow-up reporting became Boston’s first pedophile priest legal case, the first of many, with Porter sentenced to 18 to 20 years in a maximum prison.

Bergantino, now the executive director of the nonprofit New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, recently reflected on the media’s attitude of “see no evil, hear no evil” and, above all, “report no evil” at the time: “The Church was covered, in both print and television, the way we covered a sports team. When Rose Kennedy died, we brought in a priest to do the play-by-play at her Mass. The Church wasn’t covered the way we would cover the government … . And, because the Church was not transparent at the time, it was like covering the Kremlin.”*

Bergantino’s choice of the words “sports team” is telling because it suggests the media’s cheerleading, “root for the home team” mindset so pervasive at the time. Tragically, it wasn’t until years later that the full dimensions of the scandal would be revealed.

But what about the other TV reporters covering the Catholic Church back then? Nearly all those reporters, as well as the print reporters, were Catholic; many had gone to Catholic schools and colleges. The question is whether their backgrounds and religious affiliation affected their journalistic responsibilities, especially in relation to the clerical sex abuse scandal.

 

In interviews with former TV reporters who had covered the Church then, many expressed outrage toward the pedophile priests. “Monsters” was the word used by Clark Booth, formerly Channel 5’s “special correspondent.”

But did Booth, a Holy Cross graduate, and other TV reporters, steeped in the Catholic tradition and its mystique, have divided loyalties? Was their relationship with the Church a little too tight? Or, putting it in a larger context, was there a double-standard for reporters when it came to covering the Church as opposed to covering government, business and other institutions?

Rea acknowledged he covered the Church “a little more respectfully” and mostly did “friendly stories.” Rea, who now hosts NightsSide, a nightly talk show on WBZ radio said, “Once it became apparent that some of the priests were perverts, Cardinal Law should’ve gone to their offices and ripped their collars off their necks.”

David Boeri is a 30-year reporting veteran who worked at WGBH-TV and WCVB-TV, before going to WBUR-FM, Boston’s NPR news station where he now works. He is highly critical of Boston’s TV coverage. “Junkets” was what he called many of the trips when local TV reporters traveled abroad with the Cardinal. “It was all part of the ratings,” he said. “When (WCVB anchor) Chet (Curtis), who was of Polish descent, went with the Cardinal to Poland, that was a huge deal for the station and became a news series. When they went to the concentration camps, it took on significance as a ‘Great TV Event.’ Remember, it’s a Catholic audience. Visiting the Dalai Lama wouldn’t cut it.”

Boeri added: “There was something troubling about those reporters who would kiss the ring and genuflect.”

“Times were a lot different,” Booth said. “There was a little more reverence for the Church. We (reporters) were more ceremonial, more ecclesiastical—it was the big event—it was about the music, the color and the incense. We never got into issues.”

When asked if TV reporters covering the scandal were too soft on the Church, he replied, “Was The Boston Globe too soft? Was The New York Times too soft? Was The Guardian too soft? In retrospect, we all should not have gone so softly.”

Years would pass before another media outlet would seriously advance the sex abuse story. In 2001, Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix broke new ground in “Cardinal Sin,” her massive story exposing Father John J. Geoghan as a sexual predator. She also managed to get on-the-record interviews with some of his victims.

 

The Globe may not have been first on the story, but armed with the financial resources and clout of a big-city newspaper, it struck the decisive blow. By most accounts, the 2001 hiring of Marty Baron to replace Matt Storin as editor proved crucial. Not only was he Jewish, he was also an outsider. A Florida native, Baron worked at The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times before coming to The Globe from The Miami Herald.

Under his leadership, The Globe’s Spotlight Team launched a five-month investigation. The smoking gun came when the reporters gained access to previously sealed court records on Father John Geoghan who, over a 30-year period, was accused of molesting more than 130 children. Confidential documents revealed that in the face of such allegations, the Church simply shuffled Geoghan around from one parish after another, and that Cardinal Law was involved in the cover-up. For its explosive two-part series on January 6 and 7, 2002, and relentless follow-up reporting, the paper would claim the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

The Globe revelations proved the ultimate wake-up call to the culture. One by one, the walls of silence came tumbling down. In January, Jack Connors—the millionaire businessman, philanthropist and once-close advisor to Cardinal Law—broke ranks with him. Sickened by The Globe revelations, he went on to withhold a $300 million contribution to the archdiocese’s capital campaign. “I don’t have problems with my faith. I have problems with the leaders of my faith,” he told The Washington Post.

On March 5, Paul LaCamera, WCVB’s general manager, aired a station editorial saying Law had lost his moral authority and should consider resigning. Other power brokers stepped up as well. On March 13, a Boston Herald editorial, personally approved by its publisher/owner Pat Purcell, called for Law’s resignation. Ironically, Father John Geoghan had officiated at his daughter’s wedding.

Finally, on December 13, 2002, four days after 58 Boston-area priests sent a hand-delivered letter to the cardinal’s residence calling on Law to step down, the disgraced cardinal announced his resignation.

Looking back, the scandal underscores the need for continued soul-searching and vigilance by Boston’s TV stations. For too many years, they wore blinders when covering the Catholic Church. And, in the face of a Church that was notoriously secretive and lacking in transparency, there were far too many “friendly stories” and too many reporters “who would kiss the ring and genuflect.”

As WBUR’s David Boeri put it, “It took a long time for the Church mice to get brave.”

*Correction: This paragraph originally said Joe Bergantino was retired from NECIR. He has announced his retirement, but remains in the role of executive director as NECIR searches for his successor.

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Terry Ann Knopf has been a lecturer at Boston University's Journalism Department for the past 13 years. Earlier in her career, she was a TV critic for The Miami Herald, a Boston Globe correspondent, a TV critic for The Patriot Ledger, and contributing writer to Boston Magazine. Her freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times and the Boston Globe Magazine. She is currently at work on the forthcoming book, Best of Boston: The Golden Age of Local Television, to be published by the University Press of New England.