With New Film, Globe Editor Walter Robinson Steps Into The Spotlight

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Actor Michael Keaton (left) and Boston Globe editor Walter V. Robinson attend the 'Spotlight' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Actor Michael Keaton (left) and Boston Globe editor Walter V. Robinson attend the 'Spotlight' premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The new film "Spotlight" looks at the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal that broke in Boston in early 2002. The story is seen through the eyes of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team — the reporters who uncovered the widespread abuse and how the Boston Archdiocese transferred priests involved from parish to parish.

The team was headed by Walter Robinson, played in the film by Michael Keaton.

The real-life Walter Robinson joins Here & Now's Robin Young. He says he finds the all the attention focused on him and his fellow reporters a bit strange because "we are not heroes. We are people who rummage around in the dark and sometimes find something."

Interview Highlights: Walter Robinson

What’s it been like to finally find yourself as the subject of a story?

“It’s a little strange. Tom McCarthy, the director, found a brilliant way to not only bring real newspapering to a film in a way that it’s the way we really do things. You know, we are not heroes. We are people who rummage around in the dark and sometimes we find something. But through our eyes, he managed to convey the pain, the suffering and the enormity of the abuse that happened to thousands of children and he did it in a film about newspaper people that lets them tell their stories in a way that perhaps couldn’t be told if a filmmaker set out to do a story just about the survivors or the victims.”

"We are not heroes. We are people who rummage around in the dark and sometimes we find something."

On how powerful the Catholic Church in Boston was, and how unpowerful journalists were in 2002 

“Well this was at the dawn of the Internet era. Our stories went public in January of 2002. If we had done them three or four years earlier, they wouldn’t have had nearly the same kind of impact, because stories just didn’t generally go beyond your own geographic area. We were all cognizant all the time of how powerful an institution the church was. All four of us on the team had grown up Catholic. We understood the primacy of the church, the importance of the priest. All of our families were part of the social fabric of the church. In my case, you were expected to go to Catholic grammar school.”

On the roll Marty Baron and Mitchell Garabedian played in getting this story told

“There’s a wonderful scene in the film where one of the church’s lawyers trying to sort of understand the arrival of this new guy from Florida, and he says ‘So he’s Jewish — the first Jewish editor of the Globe, and he’s not married — never been married, and he doesn’t like the Red Sox. What’s going on here?’”

On the reporters in Boston who reported the story before the Spotlight team

“But the wall that all of them hit is that these were allegations. People who were victims were readily coming forward and saying ‘Look, if it happened to me and it happened in another parish, surely the archdiocese new about it. And that was the root of the lawsuits in which these documents — Geoghan’s, the priest’s personnel files were under seal.”

Geoghan was moved around to several churches by the archdiocese even though there were these accusations that he was abusing children

“That’s correct. That was the allegation. And Marty Baron came from Florida — in Florida, virtually every record is public. It has the best public records law in the country — he comes to Boston and his very first day, he said ‘I read Eileen McNamara’s column yesterday about the 84 lawsuits against this one priest and it says the records are sealed. Have we gone to court and asked to have those records unsealed?’And you know, I think he was greeted with a sort of collective deer-in-the-headlights look because nobody had actually thought of it. So it’s a great argument for having a pair of fresh eyes on almost any issue.”

On getting deeper into the story and discovering more priests and more victims

“When we started out, we were looking at Marty’s direction at one priest — Geoghan. And we very quickly discovered that Geoghan was really the tip of a very large iceberg. I mean we thought it was maybe 12 to 15 priests. In the end, as you know, a year and a half later, it was 250. But when we started to talk to victims, which was the only way into this story, and we realized what had happened to them and that there were a lot more of them than anyone realized, we were so energized to get that story and get it out. We worked — for months — six and seven day weeks to bring this story to the front page.”

On the story he reported about a father and son who were both molested in childhood

“I remember it very well. The father was molested as a young boy by Father James Porter and it pretty much ruined his life for many years. He left the church, he had lots of emotional problems he had to deal with, and finally this man had married, he had children and he decided to give the church a try again. He was quite successful, he lived in Weston, which is a very wealthy affluent suburb of Boston, and he and his family started to go to Saint Julius Parish in Weston. And there was a new father there by the name of Fr. John Geoghan, and Fr. Geoghan took an interest in his son. And then one day, he showed up to pick up his son, and his son came running from behind the church in tears, and his son had been abused by Fr. Geoghan. What a devastating double whammy for two generations of the same family to have this happen. I have to tell you, to be honest, I sat with them in their attorney’s office and I cried. Reporters don’t often cry. Look, I’m supposed to be a tough guy. I shouldn’t even be telling you this, but it’s really tough to be objective. I mean, look — the journalism textbooks used to say ‘objective journalism,’ you cannot be objective in a case like this. I mean, obviously you’re going to be fair, you’re going to get all sides of the story, but you cannot help but be driven to get this kind of a story before the public, so maybe you can do something that’ll bring a stop to this.”

Have you talked to that father and son since then?

“You know, I haven’t in a long, long time. I’ve kept touch with some of the victims, we tried to, but I have not. But now that you raise it, I think I’ll probably call. See how he’s doing.”


This segment aired on November 3, 2015.



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