KINGSTON, R.I., November 2, 2015 – Tom Farragher cut his teeth as a reporter at a little paper at the University of Rhode Island called The Good 5 Cent Cigar.
The student paper is still thriving, and so is Farragher, a columnist for The Boston Globe who has covered some of the top news stories of the last few decades.
One of those stories is about to hit the big screen.
The 1977 URI graduate was a member of the Globe’s Spotlight Team that exposed sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston. The series rocked the Roman Catholic Church and won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2003.
Now the story is being told in the film, “Spotlight,” which has its nationwide release Nov. 6. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and John Slattery, the film shows the doggedness of the Spotlight Team as it reveals how hundreds of priests molested children for decades and church leaders covered it up by moving the priests to different parishes.
Farragher recalls one incident in his Massachusetts community that illustrates the pressure he and his colleagues faced as they disclosed the horrific details. One Sunday after Mass at his local church, a priest called him over and asked: “What are you doing to us?” Farragher was speechless.
Three years after winning the Pulitzer, Farragher became editor of the Spotlight Team. Under his leadership the team uncovered more scandals – patronage in the Probation Department, monopolistic practices by hospitals and overcrowding of college students in Boston apartments. Farragher became a columnist in 2014.
URI’s Marketing and Communications Office talked to the 60-year-old Scituate, Mass., resident about studying journalism at URI, the sex abuse scandal, the new film and how to get started in journalism.
What do you think of the film?
It’s a powerful movie and very true to the Globe’s reporting on the crisis and the steps that led to the newspaper’s ability to prove systemic abuse. It was somewhat otherworldly to see people you’ve worked closely with over the years portrayed on the big screen. The portrayal of our former editor Marty Baron, now executive editor of The Washington Post, is particularly spot-on. Marty’s low-key, no-nonsense, follow-the-facts style is gotten exactly right.
Exposing the scandal must have been an intense experience. How did it change your life – personally and professionally?
I, along with our religion reporter Michael Paulson and my now-fellow columnist Kevin Cullen, joined the team shortly after the first story was published in early 2002. It was the story of a lifetime. I was a member of my local parish council at that time, but as a lifelong Catholic the revelations disturbed me more as a father than as a Catholic. I have always had a passion for investigative reporting and I was lucky enough to be named Spotlight Team editor in 2006 after my predecessor Walter V. Robinson, who led the team during the abuse crisis coverage, moved on to academia. It was the most difficult and most rewarding job I’ve ever had in journalism.
What kind of pressure did you have from church and political leaders to kill the story?
As the movie makes clear, the Catholic Church is an enormously powerful and influential institution in Boston. When the Spotlight Team, early on, asked to speak to the church, its officials told the newspaper they weren’t even interested in what the Globe’s questions were. That, of course, quickly changed.
The scandal led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, but he never went to prison. How do you feel about that?
I think Law was guilty of leading a criminal cover-up. I’ve spoken with lawyers about the attorney general’s decision not to pursue criminal charges. They tell me the laws on the books at the time would not have supported it. I would have felt better if the case had been presented to a grand jury. Then let the chips fall where they may.
Are you still in touch with any of the victims? How are they doing?
I write a twice-a-week Metro column now for the Globe. I recently wrote about one victim, Tom Blanchette, whose story of abuse and attempts to confront the church about it was particularly cinematic.
How did your journalism classes at URI and your reporting experience at The Cigar prepare you to take on a story as big as the sex abuse scandal?
The most important thing I learned from journalism school at URI from great teachers like Jack Thompson and Wilbur Doctor, was that journalism can be fun but it also can be impactful, giving voice to the powerless. Comfort the inflicted and inflict the comfortable. That’s what we were taught. Not a bad creed for any serious journalist.
What advice do you have for URI journalism students who want to be investigative reporters?
Take every assignment seriously. Kiss nothing off. The big investigations will come, but first you have to learn how to be fair, how to be thorough, how to treat your subjects they way you would want to be treated. Follow every tip. And trust your instincts. If something smells fishy, often it is. And, believe it or not, many big investigative projects are about open secrets: things that are hiding in plain sight. The trick is to develop a sense to recognize them.