Exclusive Interview with Pulitzer Prize Winning Reporter and Spotlight Team Member Steve Kurkjian


Stephen Kurkjian was one of the eight reporters and editors of the Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team who covered the clergy abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, a series that won a Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service. The Pulitzer Prize was Kurkjian’s third, having won as a reporter for the Spotlight Team in 1972 and again as the team’s chief in 1980. A 40‐year veteran of The Globe, Kurkjian was a founding member of the investigative team and also served for six years as the chief of its Washington Bureau. When their clergy abuse coverage was awarded the Pulitzer, one Globe columnist said Kurkjian embodied the spirit of the Spotlight Team and referred to him as the most feared and respected reporter in Boston.

Born and raised in Boston, Kurkjian is a product of its public school system, and a graduate of Boston University and Suffolk University Law School. He is a non‐practicing member of the Massachusetts Bar. He recently published his first book, MASTER THIEVES, a non‐fiction account of the historic 1990 theft of masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sony/TriStar Pictures purchased the rights to produce a film from the book.

How did the Spotlight team decide to pursue the story of child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston?
The decision to have The Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team pursue the clergy abuse scandal was made by Marty Baron on the very day that he took over as the paper’s new editor. He had read a column in the previous day’s Sunday paper by our metro columnist Eileen McNamara. She had criticized the church for seeking to have the records of a civil case filed by a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, against a longtime priest named John Geoghan, sealed. Baron had previously been editor of the Miami Herald and its state’s public records law was much more pro‐disclosure than in Massachusetts. He told Ben Bradlee, Jr., the team’s overall editor, to have its reporters begin looking into the allegations and to have Globe lawyers file to get the documents unsealed.

You were a founding member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. How did you become involved in the Spotlight investigation concerning priest abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston?
I had worked on the issue of clergy abusing kids in the early 1990s when Rev. James Porter, from a nearby diocese, was accused of molesting several young people at churches to which he had been assigned. While I effectively covered Porter and revealed that several others had been accused of molesting kids, I did not uncover the church’s complicity in the scandal. That was left to be done by the Spotlight Team with its Geoghan coverage. I had believed that the church was unaware that so many priests were doing such abuse, and that it was was saddened and sickened by the conduct as the parishioners. But my tough coverage on Porter presented a PR nightmare for Cardinal Law ‐ he blamed The Globe for paying too much attention to “a few bad apples. In the end he announced the establishing of a new policy to deal with such allegations. The victims would now be treated with sympathy, their claims would be paid and they would be offered counseling. But to gain their settlements they had to sign a confidentiality agreement not to tell anyone ‐ esp the press about their charges. The lawyers loved the new policy as it meant they got great fees from the settlements. But the “new” policy maintained the cover‐up in that the public was left unawares of the high number of priests who were being charged with molesting the kids. Only the Archdiocese knew the number of claims it was getting. The new policy also maintained the exemption in the Massachusetts “mandated reporting law” for religious figures like the Cardinal and the Archdiocese. They still did not have to report the allegations of abuse it was receiving from the victims and their lawyers to law enforcement. The exemption for religious figures remained in effect until the Geoghan scandal blew open.

What role did the Globe’s lawyers play in breaking the story?
The Globe lawyers, especially Jon Albano, The Globe’s lead attorney, was integral in getting the court records in the Geoghan case unsealed. And The Globe and Albano went further and got unsealed the records of all lawsuits filed against other priests that had been settled over prior decades by the Archdiocese.

Were you raised Catholic and did your own upbringing give you any qualms about the investigation?
I was one of only two reporters who was assigned to the clergy abuse scandal for The Globe who was not Catholic. I was raised as an Armenian Protestant. As I’ve gotten older, the liturgy and ceremony of the Armenian Orthodox Church has become more appealing but its parish priests are Allowed to marry. I was always amazed at the professionalism of the Catholic reporters who were assigned to the story ‐ they never hesitated to try to Tell the story in its fullness, regardless of the sordidness involved. They all realized that the core sin here that allowed such abuse to continue and Proliferate had nothing to do with religion, or maybe even celibacy. The sin was secrecy.

Both journalists Jason Berry and Rod Dreher were shaken by what they discovered about the church in their abuse Investigations. Did your investigation have a similar personal effect?
In fact, no, I was not disturbed emotionally by how the church had decided to handle such a scandal ‐ with a cover‐up. I don’t think The Globe Coverage ever completely explained that approach that the hierarchy of the church took ‐ perhaps to avoid bringing scandal upon the church. But That’s the overarching question that I focused on during the later months of my investigative reporting on the story ‐ what canonical rule had the vatican held on to that allowed so many bishops and cardinals to believe that they were doing the right thing in not shattering the secrecy of such Extensive abuse.

What was your first indication of an institutional cover‐up in the Archdiocese of Boston?
I think the first Geoghan story that the Spotlight Team did changed my mind about the church ‐ that they were far beyond being innocent victims of The abuse by the individual priests but actual collaborators. In my coverage in the early 1990s of James Porter and the couple of others whom we exposed, I had always believed that the bishops were as much surprised and hurt by the allegations of abuse as the families of the victims. The documents in the Geoghan case showed that Cardinal Law and his bishops were not only fully aware of the growing number of priests molesting kids but had been doing everything possible to prevent the scandal from becoming public.

What were your sources in linking the priests’ behavior to the Archdiocese?
Once the dimension of the abuse became known, once it went from a “few bad apples” to a pervasive, systemic problem, the lawyers who had represented dozens of victims began to speak more forthrightly about why the scandal had been allowed to stay hidden, the problem to fester. With the number of cases began to grow exponentially, I began to trust the judgements of such victims advocates as David Clohessy and Phil Saviano, that the hierarchy of the church had acted recklessly/criminally in allowing the scandal to stay hidden for so long. Was it criminal ‐ probably! Was it immoral ‐ absolutely!

What were your impressions of Cardinal Law? Did you interview him? Why do you think he resigned?
I only had one encounter interviewing Cardinal Law ‐ outside an Armenian Catholic Church the night before he flew to Rome to debrief the Vatican on the scandal that was exploding on the front pages of The Boston Globe. He had disappeared for several days as the coverage grew but I had been tipped he would appear at a funeral mass at the church. I caught his eye midway during the Mass and I could see in a momentary flash how angry he was to see me there. Understand this is a man who had been figuratively the prince of the city in Boston with its heavily‐Catholic population. Although The Globe’s coverage of Fr. James Porter, which I had spearheaded, in the prior decade had been tough enough for Law to call down the wrath of God on the paper, he was still regarded as a moral and intellectual force by the paper. That image was crumbling with every new day’s revelations in The Globe in January and February 2002 and Law had to have been a devastated man. Although he would be later deposed by victims’ lawyers, Law dodged the question of how morally he could have allowed the scandal to be kept secret for so many years/decades. I don’t believe he was ever asked directly the question that was posed to me by a Massachusetts state senator ‐ Cardinal Law was virtually the only person in the state who knew the incredibly high number of priests who were being accused of molesting kids yet he never raised his hand to suggest to the Legislature that it should remove the religious figures’ exemption from the state law that mandates all professional report to police any allegation of child abuse they had become aware of. Had that exemption been removed years before, the public would have quickly learned the event of the problem of clergy abusing kids and demanded change by the Vatican. If that change had been made decades before, a countless number of kids would have avoided sexual abuse.

As exciting as the newspaper stories are, the victims give the Spotlight movie its emotional heft. What was it like for you to interview the victims?
The several victims I interviewed all seemed seriously injured psychologically by the abuse. No matter how long before the offenses had taken place, they remained bothered by it. Because of the vaunted view of the church and priests they had not been able to speak up about what had happened to them. All those years later, they felt ashamed they had not spoken up for or defended themselves. They said they felt a measure of satisfaction now to be speaking up. But the credibility they were gaining and/or compensation they were receiving in settlements did not bring full satisfaction as too often the priests who had visited the abuse on them were retired or dead. Two men who did feel they had gotten back at the church for the harm that had been visited on them gave this story ‐ they had been named by Cardinal Law as the only victims to a committee that had studied the abuse problem in the early 1990s and had come up with recommendations for reform. But after Law dismissed their recommendation that all allegations of abuse be reported to the police, the two men resigned their positions on the committee and denied Law’s being able to pronounce that the “new, reform policy” had the assent of the victims’ community.

Have you worked on similar stories of institutional cover up of child sex abuse since the Archdiocese of Boston stories?
I found that no matter what story I was pursuing every private business, public agency or administration that I was looking at was going to deny the allegations and even if they were documented, to minimize their overall effect on the performance of the group under investigation. But measured by years of cover‐up and the harm that was involved, I have never seen a cover‐up equal to what we found inside the Boston Archdiocese. And all these years later, while I believe the church had cracked down on individual priests, the question of involvement of the bishops and inner circles of numerous popes in covering up the scandal is still not publicly known. I doubt that the church has the ability to make those facts known and punish those higher‐ups responsible ‐ in a lawful society, that’s the obligation of a free press and law enforcement.

Has anything changed in the Archdiocese of Boston to make children safer and improve accountability in the Archdiocese?
I believe that there is a far safer environment for children in churches and other sites under the supervision of the Boston archdiocese. One of the provisions assented to by the Archdiocese in its historic agreement with the attorney general’s office in 2003 was permitting the AG’s office to make continuous review of the practices and procedures used by the church in dealing with children. Whether such rigor is being encouraged by the Vatican is open to question. Just today, wire services are reporting that a major critic of the church’s handling of the clergy abuse crisis has been kicked off a Vatican commission that is recommending new church‐wide rules for transparency and honesty is getting to the root of why this scandal had remained secret for so long. For example, the commission’s report tells bishops they don’t have to report clerical child abuse accusations to the police. In laying out how newly appointed senior members of the clergy should deal with abuse allegations, the Vatican said bishops must be aware of local laws but their only duty was to deal with cases internally. “According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds,” the training guide states.

Who played you in the movie?
Since the movie focused on how the team had broken the Geoghan story and I was not a member of the team at the time, I was not given a key role in the movie. And the depiction that was made of me was disappointing as I was shown as being defensive that the Spotlight reporters would be uncovering abuse that I had failed to as The Globe’s lead reporter on the Porter case. Nothing could be further from the case, but my protests and requests for an explanation from the moviemakers fell on deaf ears. My biggest disappointment stemmed from having a major interview that I was able to gain from an abusive priest‐ in which he confessed his molestation ‐ was credited as having been gained by another team member. I was told that the movie’s writer Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy loved the interview as it showed the importance of what reporters can do but they needed to give it to another team member to get it within the time period of the original coverage. I remain disappointed by their decisions. I am played in the movie by a local actor, Gene Amoroso.

You recently published a book, not about the Catholic Church or child abuse. Tell us something about it.
My book: Master Thieves ‐ The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Largest Art Heist, was published last year by PublicAffairs. It has been critically‐acclaimed and been optioned to TriStar/Sony Pictures for a movie. I continue to give talks about the theft, which remains unsolved with one of the masterpieces recovered, more than 25 years after the theft.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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