The man behind Spotlight: How Walter Robinson took on the Catholic Church

His investigative team at The Boston Globe uncovered one of the biggest institutional scandals of our times. Ahead of his visit to Australia, the veteran journalist discusses the continuing crisis of clerical abuse and what drives him to discover the truth.

Walter Robinson

Boston Globe editor-at-large Walter Robinson, right, and far left, Michael Keaton playing him in 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight. Source: AAP

Last time Walter Robinson visited Australia it was 1970. He was serving as an intelligence officer with the US Army in Vietnam and chose Sydney for his precious R&R leave.

He fondly recalls that week; the rugby, the good food, the beer, the hospitality. He very nearly found himself adopted by a local family. “I had a wonderful time,” he recalls down the line from his home in Boston.

Almost half a century later, the 72-year-old editor-at-large of The Boston Globe returns next week to Sydney and Melbourne to headline a series of discussions around the role and future of investigative journalism in today’s ever-shifting media landscape.

Robinson’s career spans four decades at the Globe, reporting from 48 states and 34 countries. He’s covered four presidential elections, two presidencies and one-and-a-half wars. But his most important legacy - now seared into popular culture courtesy of the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight - was running the early 2000s investigation that blew the lid on widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen across Massachusetts.

Boston Globe editor-in-chief Walter Robinson.
Source: Casey Curry/Invision/AP

Rush of revelations

In the years since, entrenched patterns of clerical abuse and cover-up by the church have been exposed worldwide, including through a royal commission in Australia. The Globe’s investigation is credited as giving them crucial momentum.

In the film, Robinson is portrayed by Michael Keaton as the tough-talking, soft-souled “player-coach” of the Spotlight team – which still exists today. By all accounts, it’s an honest rendering of the man, its investigators, and the moment. Robinson says he was impressed by the efforts of cast and crew to ensure an authentic retelling of the story.

Born and raised a Catholic in famously faithful Boston, Robinson had deep connections to the story – a blessing and a curse when it came to digging the dirt. His father was a Republican state politician and his mother a part-time bookkeeper. Robinson describes his early life as one of “lively discussions” between his parents, himself and three sisters around the dining room table. It was an era when “newspapers were king” and Robinson’s first job was delivering them. He recalls collecting stacks of final editions in the dark mornings and the thrill of being the first person to read the headlines. “I was always drawn to knowing what was happening before everybody else,” he says.

Michael Keaton, left, as Walter Robinson in the 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight.
Source: Open Road Films / AAP

Seeking the truth

His university studies were interrupted by a four-year stint in the US Army. He enlisted when he learned he would be otherwise drafted, but in 1969 when he was due to be discharged, he chose to go to Vietnam “mostly so I could find out for myself why we were there”.

In some ways he resents those years, in part for delaying the start of his journalism career, but he says that time made him more mature, improved his judgement and made him a “better thinker”.

“I was in the intelligence business … the business of finding out things,” he says. “The methods are obviously somewhat different [to journalism] but you’re gathering information and trying to make sense of it. And it’s information that matters to people, in some cases, lives depends on it.”

The Spotlight team were played by an A-list cast in the film.
Source: Open Road Films

He completed his studies and started at the Globe working a range of beats. He climbed the ladders of news reporting – metro, state, federal and then international as the Middle Eastern bureau chief. The one constant was exposing wrongdoings of those in power.

“At the time, nobody called it investigative reporting,” he says. “We were just reporters who tried to dig out the truth.”

At the time, nobody called it investigative reporting. We were just reporters who tried to dig out the truth.

The Spotlight investigation into clerical abuse, and the efforts of church hierarchy to cover it up, remains unparalleled.

“There is no story that The Boston Globe has published since it began operations in 1872 that is anywhere nearly as important as that was,” he says. “And a second place isn’t even close.”

Publishing proof

Under Robinson’s leadership, the Spotlight team of four fought for the release of thousands of documents that had been sealed by the church. Combined with victim testimonies, it proved there was not only a history of abuse but also of concealment.

In 2002, the newspaper published close to 600 stories in which they accused more than 200 priests of sexual abuse within the Boston archdiocese.

The investigation resulted in the resignation of its figurehead, Cardinal Bernard Law. He was never accused of any sexual abuse but was found to have assigned priests who had. It also prompted the passing of legislation in many US states to ensure clergy members became “mandated reporters” of abuse. This made it a criminal offence to withhold knowledge of abuse, a requirement from which the church was previously exempt.

At the time, it was a high-stakes campaign for the Globe to pursue, risking upsetting the Boston establishment and readership just as print media was starting to feel the pinch of competition from online. “We expected lots of protesters because the Cardinal disliked the Globe and conservative Catholics didn’t like us either,” Robinson says. “But we had documents, so they [Catholics] didn’t blame the messenger, they blamed the church.”

Hundreds of survivors came forward to share their accounts of abuse. The team received phone calls and emails from across the nation and the world, including Australia. “The shame and guilt that kept people in the dark for so long diminished,” says Robinson.

Taking on the church

The exposé won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. It sparked a cascade of international investigations as journalists began looking in their own backyards to uncover paedophile priests and give a voice to survivors.

But Robinson remains dissatisfied with the responses to date from the Catholic Church. “I really hold that institution in such low regard,” he says.

I really hold that institution [the Catholic Church] in such low regard.

Robinson claims the reforms were made “at the point of a gun”, and he’s fearful for congregations in developing countries where authorities shy away from taking action against clerical abuse.

His concerns are validated by a 2017 report by RMIT’s Centre for Global Research that trawled through a litany of official reports from across the world since 1985 – royal commissions, police reports, judicial inquiries and more. It concluded that children most in danger of abuse are now in 9,000 Catholic-run orphanages in India and Italy.

As for the underlying drivers of abuse, Robinson blames Catholicism’s requirement of clerical celibacy as a “major factor”.

“To say that it is unnatural is an understatement,” Robinson says. “That they will never have a loving relationship with another person of either sex, and that you have to live alone in a draughty old rectory … what kind of applicant pool do you get when those are your requirements?”

Australia’s royal commission – which heard the testimonies of more than 8,000 abuse victims – also recognised celibacy as an issue. In its final report, handed down in December, it included making celibacy voluntary among its more than 400 recommendations.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said “a national tragedy” had been exposed by the inquiry. Of the survivor testimonies reporting abuse in religious institutions, 61 per cent were alleged to be Catholic groups.

Robinson, though, says the fight is not over. He remains critical of Australia’s current court suppression laws, which can prevent the publication of certain details in court cases.

“How can justice be rendered in private?" he asks. "Justice is rendered in private in totalitarian countries. Not in free countries.”

Modern media

Reflecting on the changes and challenges in journalism today, Robinson points out that the Spotlight investigation was kick-started by a story written by one of the Globe’s court reporters. “The fact is, we no longer cover that courthouse,” he says.

He’s witnessed the scaling back of editorial resources, a universal story in print media. Where the Globe once had seven foreign bureaus, now there are none. Newsroom numbers have halved.

“Valuable links in the [news] chain have gone missing. And because of that, there are extraordinarily important stories that we just don’t know about,” he says. “The loser is the public and when the public loses, democracy is diminished.”

He blames a decline in quality reporting for creating a “woefully ill-informed” public and political climate. But, he remains hopeful: “I think that’s changing to an extent.”

He channels that optimism into his advisory role at the Globe and shaping the next generation of journalists as a university educator. “You can’t spend a lot of time around students and not be optimistic,” he says.

Emerging journalists are more forward-thinking than his generation, he says. Their task now is to persuade the public to pay for news. “They will figure that out. Because information is power, it’s valuable and ultimately, people are going to be willing to pay for that.”

His passion for journalism is plainly undiminished, answering questions late into the night

The interview ends with a piece of advice for young journalists:

“Never take no for an answer”.

Walter Robinson will be speaking at the following events:
30 May: University of Melbourne
31 May: DART Center for Journalism and Trauma, Melbourne
4 June: United States Studies Centre, Sydney

This article has been co-published by The Citizen.

Published 25 May 2018 at 7:00am, updated 25 May 2018 at 9:03pm
By Charlotte Grieve