News, University News

Spotlight reporter discusses career, state of journalism

Michael Rezendes highlights investigation of Catholic church abuse, Bridgewater hospital

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes spoke about his journalistic career at 70 Brown St. Nov. 15. He discussed his reporting on a number of high-profile stories, including his role on the team that covered the abuse of young boys by clergymen in the Catholic Church in 2002, which inspired the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.”

Rezendes originally studied English at Boston University with the intent of becoming a novelist. After failing to write a successful novel, he switched to journalism because he loved politics and reading the newspaper. An assignment in one of his classes required him to volunteer for a local paper and have one of his stories published. He volunteered for the East Boston Community News and ended up writing so often for the paper that, when he graduated, he was offered a spot as an editor for $100 a week. After spending time at the Boston Phoenix, the San Jose Mercury News and the Washington Post, he went to work for the Globe, where he eventually joined the Spotlight Team to cover the abuse scandal.

Contrary to what some believe, the Spotlight Team did not “discover” the abuse occurring in the church, Rezendes said. There were a number of known cases that had occurred prior, but they had all been written about as individual cases. The Spotlight Team, however, was able to prove that there was a cover-up by the Catholic Church, based on official church documents.

After the team’s editor at the time, Martin Baron, told them to investigate the cover-up, the team began to research abuse by one man in particular, John Geoghan. They soon discovered that they were dealing with more than one priest, Rezendes said. His job was to further investigate Geoghan.

Much of Rezendes’ early work was closely tied to developing a relationship with Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer of many of the victims. The Church had tried to have Garabedian disbarred three times for his work, which made him paranoid; as a result, it was not easy to build a relationship with him. Rezendes said the interviews with the families of the victims were like therapy sessions since they were extremely emotional, but his efforts made Garabedian see him as sincere and committed.

Rezendes also had to develop relationships with the victims themselves. Often, he would begin by trying to establish common ground, such as talking about Boston. This made the victims comfortable enough to discuss the difficult topics.

It was through Garabedian that the team got the court to refile the records on the church that had been cleaned out. Here, they found direct evidence of the church covering up the abuse, especially by Geoghan, who was the focus of 10,000 pages of records.

These papers allowed the team to write their stories, Rezendes said. These articles had an impact in a number of ways, including policy implementations to mandate reporting of suspected abuse to civil authorities. The most important part for Rezendes, however, was that his reporting allowed victims, who had been silenced for so long, to finally feel emboldened enough to come forward.

Rezendes expected backlash to his story in Boston, a heavily Catholic city. Instead, the team saw widespread support from both Catholics and non-Catholics. Many called personally to congratulate the team.

Rezendes also spoke about another story of his that had a significant impact. The team investigated the questionable conditions surrounding the death of Joshua Messier, a schizophrenic patient in Bridgewater State Hospital. It led to the revelation of inhumane conditions at the hospital and the wide-scale cover-up that had taken place. After the story broke, the hospital was completely renovated. Previous prison guards were replaced by trained ones, and Bridgewater itself was rebuilt to more closely resemble a hospital rather than a prison, he said.

Rezendes’ work “was a good example of the kind of impactful journalism that we’re at the risk of losing with resources being cut at papers,” Ellen Ling ’20 told The Herald.

At the end of the talk, Rezendes expressed concerns about the current state of journalism. The proliferation of fake news compromises the integrity of democracy, he said. Credible news sources are suffering, leading to the inability of reporters to cover certain events.

“I found Rezendes incredibly engaging and I thought he had a lot of helpful advice for aspiring journalists,” Isabelle Scott ’21 told The Herald.

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