For Globe editor, public service at journalism’s heart

When Martin Baron addressed a roomful of notebook-wielding reporters as editor-in-chief of the Boston Globe 10 years ago, he launched an investigation that revealed rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize.

A decade later 15 Emerson juniors and seniors penned notes on the editor’s two-hour lecture Tuesday night, Baron said the series exemplifies public-service journalism.

“The reverberations of that story are still being felt today,” Baron said, standing in the Tom Winship Room where the prize-winning stories kicked off. “The church is still trying to figure out how to apologize.”

For the last few weeks, journalism professor Roy Harris invited reporters and editors from the Globe to discuss the groundbreaking series, which shook the world’s largest Christian church, for his class, “Impact Journalism: Public Service Reporting Today, and Its Place in American Society.”

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Harris said the syllabus includes the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation and recent document dumps from the whistleblowing website Wikileaks.

Surrounded by students seated at a horseshoe-shaped table, Baron, dressed casually in a gray zip-up sweatshirt, explained the roots of the church scandal investigation.

Soon after taking the helm 10 years ago, Baron said he sensed that the paper’s initial report on a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a priest only scratched the surface of what became a much larger story.

“I thought the Globe was treating it kind of routinely,” Baron said. “I said, ‘What are we doing to follow up on this litigation? Can we get behind those documents and find out who’s right?’”

According to the Guardian, the Globe fought a lengthy legal battle with the church to gain access to internal documents which later revealed widespread sexual abuse in the church.

“It’s not the first time people had written about abuse in the Catholic church, God knows,” Baron said. “But it was the first time you could see everything laid out before you. And the church couldn’t deny it, because there it was.”

After publishing the reports, he said he expected backlash from Boston’s large Catholic community, but, to his surprise, they received few complaints.

“We anticipated there would be an uproar,” Baron said. “But the story ran, and there was no flood of calls. The stories were so well-documented, so dispassionately written, that you couldn’t argue with them.”

After answering students’ questions, the editor-in-chief brought the class for a tour around the newsroom.

“It’s like Walt Disney giving you a tour of Disneyland,” Harris said.

Harris said that during the three weeks the class spent on the church abuse story, he wanted the students to be as immersed as possible.

“The idea of it was to get students as deeply involved in the decision making that goes into a blockbuster story as they possibly could be,” he said.

Laura C. Morel, a senior in the class, said the meeting was less formal than she had imagined it would be.

“He was very approachable,” the print journalism major said of Baron. “I thought it would be a little more serious. Besides being an editor, he’s also willing to talk with students.”