Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money

By: Ayurella Horn-Müller

More than 370 journalists. 11.5 million documents. 200+ countries.  214,000 shell companies. 14 world leaders. 128 public officials. 1 law firm.

Welcome to the largest, and arguably most important, piece of investigative journalism of it’s time – The Panama Papers.

April 3, 2016. A day like any other. On this date, the world saw the Brussels Zaventem International Airport reopen two weeks after the suicide bombings. Tragic flash floods in Pakistan would take the lives of 45 people in the 2016 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa flood. A pro-choice rally drew thousands of people in Warsaw, Poland. Conflicts, protests, and natural disasters occurred all over the world. Yet, April 3rd, 2016 would cement itself in history as a day of mass accountability through a journalistic medium – this was the moment in time in which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and German media outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung would publish the first of many stories unveiling a project that went on to become a widespread household name: “The Panama Papers.” This investigation publicised the world’s largest-ever data leak, revealing 11.5 million documents from Panamanian-based law firm Mossack Fonseca that exposed illegal activities including “fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion and the violation of international sanctions by the world’s elite…

Illustration: Copyright BBC News Image

“Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing”, says a Mossack Fonseca public relations officer.

When first approached by someone calling themselves, “john doe,” who offered access to confidential data, Bastian Obermayer did not hesitate to accept the intriguing, albeit shrouded-in-secrecy, offer. Collaborating with fellow journalist Frederik Obermaier at Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German media outlet, Obermayer discusses his initial reaction, growing disbelief, and rapid call to investigative action in their first-hand account of the Panama Papers investigation, The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money. Obermayer was initially given concrete evidence of money smuggling by the then- Argentine president through documents proving illegal transfers of millions of dollars to offshore shell companies. “John doe”, otherwise known as Obermayer’s anonymous source, ended up producing 2.6 terabytes of documents proving Fonseca’s dealings all over the world within as little as a few weeks. The evidence consisted of confidential documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm which would turn out to be one of the largest offshore international providers. Süddeutsche Zeitung had come across suspicions of the firm’s shady dealings in the past, but had lacked the proof needed to implicate it. Obermayer and Obermaier became increasingly aware of the broader political context behind their ever-growing pile of data: within this goldmine of clandestine documents lay massive implications of global political corruption and tax evasion by some of the world’s most powerful leaders and figureheads.

As they began to scan through the files, the duo’s initial hypothesis began to form. Mossack Fonseca was orchestrating and aware of highly illegal financial dealings with some of the world’s most powerful players. The hypothesis evolved to include more and more persons to investigate as the data Obermayer was provided with increased, and the scope of work of the project kept expanding. It became so large, the team decided to reach out to Gerald Ryle, Director at the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, for help. Ryle would bring in Marina Guevara, ICIJ’s deputy director, and they would eventually recruit lead ICIJ reporters, data journalists, editors, researchers, fact checkers, web designers, as well as hundreds of international reporters. This collaboration would lead to a year long investigation, in which the largest ever network of journalists would work together in secrecy on the task of assembling evidence within a mountain of data in order to implicate countless politicians and leaders in many countries spanning the globe – all thanks to the common link of one legal firm.

Helena Benggston, editor of data projects at the Guardian, was one of the data journalists working on the Panama Papers. She described their strategy to approach the mass amount of data as a, “fishing method.” When questioned on weaknesses of the project, she reported that the affair was quite unstructured and it took some time to develop a clear plan of attack on the mass amounts of information to pull and construct full stories out of. “The method on how we found information,” is something she would, “redo,” if given the chance.  Benggston says they “spent too long going at the mountain of data without an angle, or clear strategy.” If she had to do it again, she would, “be more organised,” and “develop a strategy from the get-go,” before involving too many other parties. The key challenges of this investigation are discussed by Obermayer and Obermaier in their novel, and the journalists seem to share a similar perspective to Benggston. The sheer size of the data, and the critical organisation necessary to manage the goals of the project were the biggest challenges for the team – they knew they needed a comprehensive strategy to fully understand and use the documents in the best, most effective way. Alongside the challenges, were the breakthroughs. Ula Brunner, editor at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, interviewed Obermayer and Obermaier discusses this with the duo. “As soon as the name of Vladimir Putin’s best friend cropped up in the documents, along with the names of other heads of state and government, we realised – this was an international story that was going to cause quite a stir.” Alongside the links of hidden money tied to Putin, Obermayer and Obermaier name groundbreaking moments such as discovering Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s stakes in banks, as well as FIFA officials financial ties, along the way in The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money.

The ICIJ team working on this investigation consisted of nearly 400 journalists from more than 200 countries in the world, all hailing from different cultures, languages and backgrounds. The ICIJ continued to recruit journalists over the course of the investigation, so that they were able to specialise in each country affected, and could fully investigate the key players found to have ties to Mossack Fonseca. As well, the ICIJ wanted domestic journalists who could eventually work with their local press to communicate the relevant stories nationally. The results of the project were massive – and still ongoing today – with Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca being detained for money laundering, a resignation from Iceland’s then prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being investigated by the Pakistani Supreme Court, as well as ongoing 150 investigations into cases, and a devaluation of about $135 billion on more than 400 companies tied to Fonseca. From a media viewpoint, this went down as the largest scale cross-collaboration by journalists in history, as well as the largest ever data leak. The ICIJ team were awarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for the project – and have routinely updated the web-based platform for readers to be kept up to date with the prosecution cases, arrests and ongoing developments with those incriminated by the 11.5 million documents.

Speaking to the magic behind the Panama Papers explosive publication, an evident amount of hard work and attention to detail was invested into the final polished product. The publication itself consisted of a global date – April 3rd, 2016 – which had been agreed upon by Obermayer, Obermeier, Ryle and other lead team members within the investigation. They communicated this date to all ICIJ members involved so that they could prepare their national media outlets with the relevant breaking stories. Another massive challenge of the investigation was brought to play here – the chance of an early leak internally. Within the project, the journalists brought in were sitting on massive stories, and Obermayer, Obermeier and Ryle had to trust that everyone would wait to publish at the agreed upon time. Thankfully, the challenge was overcome by the team with success as the date of publication was adhered to by all.

The ICIJ’s interactive, “The Power Players,” illustrates the selected profiles, stories and official statements made by 12 current world leaders and more than 50 relatives, associates, politicians and public officials who were exposed in the investigation. (Copyright ICIJ)

Hosted on the ICIJ website, the project incorporates five key areas to explore – an introduction, stories, people, data and a game. Alongside core articles outlining the investigation, Hamish Boland-Rudder executive produced a 1-minute introduction video, “The Panama Papers: Victims of Offshore.” This dramatic overview of the “cast of characters” involved in these shady financial dealings has racked up 1.8 million views on Youtube in the past year. ICIJ’s brilliant team of engineers even created their very own interactive game for readers to better understand how offshore companies work. In, “Stairway to Tax Heaven,” the player gets to experience the secret world of offshore banking by selecting a character and navigating a series of choices with the aim of not getting caught. With main characters of the game being a politician, business executive and soccer player, this clever game is evidently the ICIJ’s not-so-subtle way of hammering the aim of their global investigation home.


Another interactive piece of the ICIJ publication is their infamous, “Power Players,” app. With more than millions of visitors to this particular part of the website, “Power Players,” exists as a thoroughly engaging way for readers to grasp the enormity of the scandal and the relevance of those involved. The team at ICIJ spent months compiling extensive research from worldwide public records to add to the narrative from the Mossack Fonseca documents to illustrate the profiles of these key country leaders, politicians, and public officials. Notably, the website also provides public access to Offshore Leaks – a database containing details on nearly 500,000 offshore companies that are part of the Panama Papers investigation. The data available for use includes almost 40 years of information and more than 200 countries and regions.

From a global standpoint, those implicated in the Panama Papers leak are nearly countless. Amongst many other notable public figureheads, both domestic and international media published breaking stories on Icelandic prime minister, Argentina’s president, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the United States CIA, China’s ruling elite, Pakistani prime minister, and Australia’s prime minister, all with ties to offshore companies in tax havens through Fonseca. An enthralling, but shocking wake up call for an industry infamous for it’s elusivity, the ICIJ’s, “Panama Papers,” continues to remind the world’s most powerful that no amount of money can buy a complete lack of accountability. Bengtsson agrees. “The Panama Papers reminded us that…as a journalist, you have power.”


Bengtsson, Helena. Live presentation at a Data Journalism lecture for students at Gothenburg University. Tuesday, September 26th, 2017.

Brunner, Ula. ‘An Interview with Bastian Obermayer: Leaks Have an Important Control Function.’ Goethe Institute. Accessed October 9, 2017.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ),

The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money – Bastian Obermayer, Frederik Obermaier – Oneworld Publications, 30 Mar 2017 – 384 p.

‘What Happened on April 3rd.’ Accessed 9 October 2017.


Panama Papers by Jessica Lindbom Jämting

It all started with a short message. The investigative journalist at Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) Bastian Obermayer was at home with his sick children when an anonymous source, John Doe, sent the journalist a message asking if he wanted secret information. “Every investigative journalist that gets a message like that immediately wakes up.” He says. “Secret documents are always good.” Obermayer continues with describing that you seldom know immediately if a source is good or not but factual documents have one advantage: They are possible to control. The fact that the source does not want any payment, Obermayer also finds to be a good sign. He means that the risk of frauds that way decreases. (Obermaier, Obermayer 2016, 8)

As John Doe sends over the first load of documents, Obermayer starts to check the information and he immediately likes what he finds. The first documents include information that shows how the suspected but never convicted, Argentinian president couple through shell companies and the Panama-based lawyer firm Mossack Fonseca had transferred about 65 million dollars from the Argentine treasury out of the country. (Obermaier, Obermayer 2016, 10) The leaked documents then continued to flood in, indicating and disclosing how many of the of the world leaders, wealthy individuals and sanctioned war criminals, through Mossack Fonseca are able to hide huge amounts of money, avoid taxes and continue illegal purposes.

Through the leak, the journalists at Süddeutsche Zeitung, also called The Obermaier/yer brothers, were able to identify numerous of hypotheses and susceptive protagonists all over the world. Since the data just kept growing both in range and in countries, they realized in an early stage that it would not be possible to go through all the data by themselves. They, therefore, contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) so that they could divide the data with other investigative journalists around the world. (Obermaier, Obermayer 2016, 29) The Obermaier/yer brothers also reflected that stories about, for example, Africa, would in Germany get a very little notice compared to the ones reflecting Europe, even though the African stories might have a bigger impact than the German ones.  

Here shell companies create social injustices and help cover up crimes. In Africa, the clandestine dealings of dictator plunder entire nations into poverty.” (Obermaier, Obermayer 2016, 212)

Since the leak was containing secret and sensitive information in an enormous amount, the Obermaier/yer brothers found themselves facing many of obstacles. They had no former experience in storing huge amount of data, neither what programs that could be considered trustworthy. Even though they had been members of the ICIJ for a long time, they were not sure how to instal their colleges with the project or what role they should have in the investigation when the ICIJ was onboard. They also were unsure of their own safety. The leak included many of the world’s villains businesses, villains that probably not would like investigating journalists digging in their affairs. (Obermaier, Obermayer 2016, 72)

Do we want to end up on the front line of the Italian mafia? Or the Russian?”

As the project carried on, many of their obstacles were solved with help from the ICIJ. The journalists met around the world discussing the data, their findings and how to publish the material. The journalists with different types of expertise helped to deal with many of problems, such as organizing the huge amount of data and create safe databases.

In April 2016, after a year of dedicated work by 370 international journalists on 11,5 million documents equal to 2.6 terabytes of data, the first story about the Panama Papers was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung. (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2016) The story describes how the world’s largest leak could reveal how for example the father of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, the Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and close associates of President Vladimir Putin all could be connected to shady affairs in Panama. The impact of the story was massive, and for example, lead to the resignation of the Icelandic prime minister Gunnlaugsson. (Bergman, Dyfvermark 2016, 358)  



Obermayer, Bastian; Obermaier, Frederik 2016. Panamadokumenten – Berättelsen om historiens störtsa läcka. Weyler bokförlag AB, Stockholm.

Obermayer, Bastian; Obermaier, Frederik; Wormer, Vanessa; Jaschensky Wolfgang. About the Panama Papers. (2017-10-08)

Panama Papers: “It’s a triumph for journalism” – Pernilla Stammler Jaliff

“It’s a triumph for journalism”, says Bob Woodward, the man behind the Watergate scandal. Panama Papers is today known as the biggest leak in history of investigative journalism. A triumph that started with a simple question “Interested in data?”

It was in the beginning of 2015 when Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier of Süddeutsche Zeitung received an e-mail from “John Doe”, an anonymous whistle-blower that within a year provided them with over 11 million documents showing hidden finances from the world’s rich and powerful. The documents came from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, containing financial records for over 200 000 offshore companies.

Imagine yourself going through over 11 million documents of data with the feeling that this might be the biggest leak in history. Any journalist would start questioning his or hers capacity and realize that this is just too big amount of data for two people to handle on their own. In these documents Obermayer and Obermaier found names such as the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s associates, a Siemens manager and the Argentine president. This was not just about finding a story, it was about breaking a system of tax havens that had been running silently and undetected for decades. The reporters then decided to share the millions of documents with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ). Over 370 journalists from 76 countries got involved making the investigation the biggest cross-border collaboration in history. By sharing the investigation it also made it possible for journalists to cover and highlight the cases that were particularly interesting for their own national audience.

The ICIJ gathered all the journalists through a common digital platform and held several meetings in Europe, Africa and America. When digging into the documents they found offshore companies controlled by the king of Saudi Arabia, the prime minister of Pakistan and children of Azerbaijan’s President, to name a few. At least 33 companies were blacklisted by the United States because they had been found of doing business with terrorist organizations and nations such as North Korea. One of the companies was even revealed as fuelling the aircraft that the Syrian Government used to bomb and kill its own citizens.

While working with the investigation, leads and data constantly grew and security measurements became highly significant. This was an obstacle that was dealt with by improved technical tools, such as data-analysis programs, and by encrypting all files, data and e-mails. Another challenge was how to keep the investigation secret when almost 400 journalists where working at the same time with the same publication date. This might be the biggest achievement as Edward Snowden almost revealed the investigation an hour before it was launched – on his Twitter account.

Helena Bengtsson at the Guardian was one of the 370 journalists that investigated the Panama Papers. In one of her public sessions she explains that her team of five journalists was sitting in a locked room for weeks matching people using the “fishing method in a sea of documents”. In the aftermath of the launch she sees that their current data programs are not sufficiently developed. The investigation could have found a lot more stories but “data are not there yet”.

The investigation continues to evolve as over 150 audits, prosecutions and arrests has been taking place in over 80 countries. Panama Papers is not just about one leak involving tax havens; it also involves financing of terrorism, weapons, corruption and other severe crimes.

The launch of Panama Papers dominated headlines across the globe and was further communicated through graphics, text, broadcasting news and the social media. Scoop followed scoop and the people talked about Panama Papers for weeks. It concerned everyone – everyone in Argentina, Russia, Iceland, every UN member state and every football fan.

Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest football player, in 2012 coincidently started an offshore company together with his father – Mega Star Enterprises. A revelation that Panama Papers would add to his already in place charges of not paying his taxes of 4.1 million euro between 2007 and 2009 in Spain. As I am Argentinean myself, and love football, it is obvious that I named my cat after Lionel Andrés Messi. So I am now pleased to introduce him to guests as my corrupted cat; Messi.



Pernilla Stamm’ler Jaliff



Book: Panama Papers, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier

Helena Bengtsson, reporter at the Guardian

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ),


Panama Papers – Amalia

[Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?]

Bastian Obermayer and Fredrik Obermaier, experienced journalist ”brothers”, were working for the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) newspaper in early 2015, when ”John Doe” first approached them. This anonymous source would end up providing them with around 2,6 terabytes of data.

In Luke Harding’s foreword, the historical context of the investigation is provided – he mentions various surveillance scandals (including the Snowden documents) in the US and the UK, and the phenomenon of tax havens, whose huge global impact and importance on the economic system were discovered through the Obermai/yers investigation.

One company which stood out from the crowd through its many contacts, and thus plays a central role in this book is the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca:

”stories that report on the secret offshore companies of dozens of heads of state and dictators (…), how billions are earned from arms, drug and blood-diamond trafficking and other illegal business (…) and (…)the scale of tax evasion by the wealthy and super-rich of this world. And all those stories begin with Mossack Fonseca on that first night.” (p.9) 

Harding claims that the reason ”John Doe” first chose to share the data was that like Snowden, he wanted to ”expose criminal wrongdoing among the firm’s shadowy clients.” (p.viii)

The source himself said his life would be in danger if it was known that he had shared the information, but still decided to share, ”not for any specific political purpose, but because I understood enough about their contents to realize the scale of the injustices they described.” (p.340)

Maybe it was these or similar factors that made the Obermai/yers interested in taking on the case.


Their original plan, after their first contact with John Doe, was ”to analyse the data closely and then consider how and when we will publish our findings. (…)” (p.10)

The goal was to look through the documents, see if they were verifiable through external sources, and then use it, to highlight a global issue on the one hand, and prove that the actors named might not be as financially honest as they seemed, on the other.

However, time passed and during the work they realized that instead of keeping the data a secret with in SZ, eventually they would have to show it to outsiders, or they would never have a chance of verifying it all. They also understood, over time, that considering the amount of data, their main job was to spread awareness of the issue through verifying the information, rather than necessarily ”proving” anything.


This is why, in June 2015, an ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) meeting- the first of many to come – was held in Washington DC. It was now clear that the size of the project had grown out of their hands, and they asked their international colleagues for help.

Similar meetings were later to be held in Germany, Norway, Iceland and South Africa among others, and in connection to these the project name ”Prometheus” was created, along with an encrypted database for all the journalists to view, share and discuss their work.

This lightened the workload for the Obermai/yers on the project, the magnitude of which would naturally not be free of difficulties.

At two occasions, they had to ask for stronger computers, as their ones simply could not process the enourmous amount of data. On top of this, they also came to doubt whether or not they should even accept more data as ”John Doe offered it; ”On the one hand: yay, more material! On the other hand; there’s already so much data, and everything is already so complicated…” (p.211)

Another important issue was to keep their colleagues operating in other, more journalistically ”dangerous countries, for example in Eastern Europe, Africa  and the Middle East, safe from harm.

Other factors were also important in moving the work forward.

For example, finding big names like Jürgen Mossack (founder of Mossack Fonseca) and Sergei Roldugin (best friend, KGB training colleague and godfather of the daughter of Russian President Putin), would help considerably as they could often be connected both to other big names, and to contacts within Mossack Fonseca or the world of tax havens.

One such thing discovered in connection to President Putin was that powerful leaders and politicians often place their companies under someone else’s name, preferably a trusted friend. This, of course, in turn, grants the friends in question advantages of their own.


The story was presented in a series of articles published on the website of Süddeutsche Zeitung on April 3, 2016. The accompanying hashtag #PanamaPapers – a wordplay with the 1970s Pentagon Papers – quickly trended globally after Edward Snowden tweeted about the investigation minutes before going public.

As a result, following national votes of no confidence against the investigated politicians, a few of them,  like Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson and Ramon Fonseca, founder of Mossack Fonseca and advisor to the Panamanian president, had to resign from their posts.

The investigation and this book have received praise as well as criticism. Indeed, it is a great example of the importance of global journalistic networks, and their power to hold the rich and powerful to account.

However, one might ask how new or newsworthy the issue investigated really is. Sure, it is a very detailed ”behind the scenes” description of the financial world today, but the question remains – what do the authors really want to say with it?

According to the American Press Institute (API), “the best stories are more complete and more comprehensive. They contain more verified information from more sources with more viewpoints and expertise. They exhibit more enterprise, more reportorial effort.”

And nobody can accuse the ”Prometheus” team for not providing a very detailed, complete and comprehensive story, produced by the joint efforts of hundreds of journalists.

I will be honest, starting out with this book I never thought I would find it remotely interesting – I already knew about the tax havens, what new info could this book give me?

As I read, however, I found myself drawn into this billion dollar world of shady affairs, and I was utterly fascinated by the amount of money circulating there, and the actors all getting away with it.

API writes on their website that a good story is what ”the audience decides is interesting or important”, meaning that you take a subject they know but tell them something they don’t – in this case, going behind the scenes in tax havens.

My final point is that, through performing this investigation, processing millions of files and verifying them through interviews and external documents, the Obermai/yers have done true journalism according to the API, namely ”a process in which a reporter uses verification and storytelling to make a subject newsworthy.”



The Panama Papers: Breaking the story on how the rich and powerful hide their money – Obermaier, F, Obermayer, B, OneWorld Publications Ltd, London, 2016

”Panama Papers: inside the Guardian’s investigation into offshore secrets”, Juliette Garside, The Guardian, April 16, 2016, viewed October 8, 2017

– What makes a good story? , American Press Institute Website, viewed October 7, 2017



In the early 2002 a huge investigation broke through in Boston, revealing that 87 priests had abused children and the church had not only known about the cases, but also attempted to cover up their crimes by paying settlements to the victims and signing confidentiality agreements (Carroll et al. 2016, 6). The Boston’s Globe story socked the whole Catholic community, not only in Boston but throughout the world.

The Boston Globe needed an “outsider’s” view in Boston’s Catholic Archdiocese issue to identify the importance of it and found it in Martin Baron, the new head editor of the Globe. “It’s a great example of what a fresh pair of eyes can do at a newspaper,” said Spotlight Editor Walter Robinson (Mizner 2009). Baron as Jewish and totally new in the city, did not hesitate and in just his first editors meeting, took the decision to challenge on the court the confidentiality of the sealed documents of Geoghan’s case. Father John Geoghan, a Roman Catholic priest accused to have abused more than 100 boys in three decades, having 84 lawsuits against him.

This Baron’s brave decision was the starting point for the Spotlight’s investigation. The first hypothesis for Spotlight’s team was to identify, how much the church knew about Geoghan (Carroll et al. 2016, 5). Trying to find sources to support their hypothesis, they searched for victims and lawyers of sexual abuse cases. During this process they discovered that church had paid off a number of people to withdraw from filing sexual abuse lawsuits against priests. Suddenly that turned to be more serious than a single case story.

Spotlight’s main source for located victims was SNAP a network of sexual abused victims and its leader Phil Saviano, who gave to them dozens of priests accused of sexual abuse. From the lawyers’ side Mitchell Garabedian was a key person, who provided the Spotlight with victim’s interviews as well as with crucial information about the “explosive” Geoghan’s case documents (Mizner 2009). Another useful source that used as an expert in the field was Richard Sipe, who worked for years as a psychologist in a treatment center for priests who committed sexual abuse and confirmed with his statistics the real extend of the priest’s abuses (Larson 2015).

With more and more names of priests coming out the Spotlight had to organize their data and try to confirm the names. So they decided to build a database based on the data that found in the church’s directories. This database provided with information about the suspected priests moves that in most cases used the same kind of description “sick leave” about their moves around the time the victims were receiving the settlements (Carroll et al. 2016, 6). This whole database of “sick leave moves” revealed a pattern that partially confirmed more than 100 suspected priests without of course being an evidence on its own.

One of the main obstacles through the investigation was the vanished court records about many sexual abuse cases. When the victims were receiving the settlements, the judges were sealing the records, after the church’s relevant request (Mizner 2009). So the Spotlight did not have the documents to confirm the suspected priests that came out of the database and the interviews with the victims. So they turn to lawyers of the cases in order to confirm the abuses. Eric MacLeish was one of them that confirmed 45 cases of priest’s sexual abuse and helped the investigation go through.

After all these data about the almost 90 priests in the Boston Archdiocese the Spotlight team realized that they have to change the aim of the investigation. An investigation that begun by focusing on the single case of Father Geoghan, it turned to be a story about 87 priests, revealing a systematic pattern of covering up abuses. The focus now was the Cardinal, the institution and not the priests individually.

Garabedian as mention before was a key figure in this investigation due to his actions that helped Spotlight access the most significant part of the sealed documents of the Geoghan case before the courts final decision about the case. This was a turning point for the investigation, finally Spotlight had a smoking gun, these documents proved that Cardinal Law was aware of Geoghan pedophilia although he placed him in a position connected to children. The most important of that documents was a letter from Bishop John D’Arcy to Cardinal Law, written in 1984 after Law had reassigned Geoghan. D’Arcy opposed to Law’s decision due to Geoghan’s “history of homosexual involvement with young boys.” This letter finally proved that Law knew about Geoghan, when he assigned him again to new Parish in charge of altar boys (Mizner 2009).

Following this huge breakthrough the Spotlight had to take a tough decision either publishing the story having these documents in their hands or waiting to found the foul scope of the story and collect all the evidence needed to prove the systematic character of the abuses. The decision finally made in favor of the foul scope, taking the risk someone else would find the documents and publish the story. So Spotlight continued and until the day of the Judge’s Constance M. Sweeney final unsealing decision for the whole documents, they had already interviewed the rest of the victims and confirmed by lawyers’ sources the rest of the suspected priest’s names.

In the 31st of January 2002 the story published and instead of angry reactions from the Boston’s Catholic community against the Globe, as it was expected, many people decided to come forward and reveal their stories of clergy sexual abuse making the story even bigger and bigger (Larson 2015).

This amazingly inspiring investigation achieved first of all to reveal a huge scandal in Catholic Church that resulted many changes through the next decade. “In 2014 the Vatican said that it had defrocked 848 priests worldwide for sexual abuse between 2004 and 2013, and that 2,572 clerics had been disciplined for abuse violations” (Larson 2015). But in my point of view the most important achievement of this investigation was that fulfilled the goal of watchdog journalism, making even the most powerful institution accountable for its actions and protecting the most vulnerable population, children, from its “abuse” of power.

by Chris Makrygiannis


Carroll, Matt – Cullen, Kevin – Farragher, Thomas – Kurkijan, Stephen – Paulson, Michael – Pfeiffer, Sacha – Rezendes, Michael – Robinson, V. Walter, 2015. “Betrayal – The Crisis in the Catholic Church.”

Larson, Sarah, 2015. “’Spotlight’ and Its Revelations.” The New Yorker. [Electronic source]

Mizner, David 2009. “Reporting an Explosive Truth: The Boston Globe and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.” The Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. [Electronic source]