‘Spotlight’ the movie: In sync with reality

Michael Keaton, the Boston Globe's Ben Bradlee Jr., Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer,and Walter Robinson, and writer/director Thomas McCarthy during press day for "Spotlight" in Los Angeles. Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP

The recently released movie Spotlight, which will open nationally tomorrow, dramatically and effectively relays the story of how in 2001 and 2002 a determined team of Boston Globe journalists, working under the banner of the newspaper’s celebrated Spotlight Team, uncovered and published details from long-secret documents that laid out, among other things, the Catholic Church of Boston’s betrayal of its little ones, children who had been taught to see God in the faces of their priests.

The newspaper’s long-running account brought into the sunlight evidence showing that over decades cardinals and bishops and their lawyers had privately acknowledged sexual abuse of minors by priests under their supervision with payoffs to the families – the details of which were placed under judicial seal. After buying the victims’ silence, the church hierarchy essentially enabled the abusers by quietly moving them from parish to parish in the full knowledge that these were very troubled men.

The Spotlight Team effort brooks few comparisons as the most important story the Globe has told in its 142 years of publishing, an effort the film captures realistically in its telling. The series sent the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston into a state of shock. It had a horrific impact in discrete areas like neighborhood parishes and homes and schools in and around Boston. And it engendered widespread soul-searching among Catholics and their ministers nationally and internationally as the scandal took on a worldwide face.

The revelations also placed under a cloud of suspicion the respectability of all the clerics of the church. Decried by priests, their families, and their congregations as unwarranted and unfair, that cloud remains in place for many to this day.

There had been continuing news coverage throughout the 1990s about several celebrated priest abuse cases locally before the Spotlight revelations – in the Globe itself, in other local media, particularly in the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, and in other communities across the country. But the Spotlight Team’s series of stories, gleaned via a persistent, don’t-take-no-for-an-answer investigative style and driven by a rich trove of judicially released data that showed how the church dealt with the crisis in-house, served up a brutal narrative that conveyed to the public the stark evidence of reckless criminal behavior by a large number of priests that had been covered up by their prominent religious supervisors.

There is much in the movie that is familiar to me, a managing editor at the Globe through the 1980s and 1990s, as the script brings viewers along while reporters and editors work the story inside and outside the building – Who at the paper needs to know about what’s going on? How will the team distribute the work when thousands of documents are dropped on their desks? How to deal with confidences demanded by reliable sources? How to determine reliability? How to deal with those in the know on the church side who won’t hesitate to insert themselves into the investigative process? How to present the information in the most compelling manner?

Across the fetch of the story on screen there is the occasional over-dramatization of personalities and events, and in several instances, individuals whom I know well are presented unfavorably – and unfairly, in my view.

For all that, the movie as a whole speaks successfully to the high value of the journalism it portrays, so much more excellent than flawed. Everyone who worked on the story, including those who were left out of the script, committed themselves to affirming that value as the horror stories played out day after day in the pages of the Globe, eventually forcing the presiding archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, to resign and decamp to Rome.

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On May 23, 1992, Cardinal Law, in an appearance at St. Patrick Church in Roxbury, took up ongoing media coverage of the criminal cases against James R. Porter, who had been accused of molesting between 50 and 100 children while serving as a priest in the Fall River diocese from 1960 to 1967.

Law seemed to view the Porter story as being about a single priest who had gone astray, an aberration that was putting the Roman Catholic priesthood itself in a bad light. “The papers like to focus on the faults of a few. . . . We deplore that,” he said, according to the Boston Globe story the next day, and he quoted the apostle Paul in offering an admonition against that focus.

“St. Paul spoke of the immeasurable power at work in those who believe,” the prelate said. “We call down God’s power on our business leaders, and political leaders and community leaders. By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe. … to tell the good story about the Catholic parishes in the inner city.”

The cardinals words echoed the prevailing sentiment in some precincts that the Globe was out to get the church and never had anything positive to say about what it was doing. From the 1960s on, the newspaper had begun to take strong affirmative stands on issues of the day, some of which hinged on religious values – for birth control, for abortion rights, and, later, for same-sex marriage – stands squarely against the church’s teachings. Ergo, for many, the Globe was anti-Catholic.

The record will show that from the time of Cardinal William O’Connell, the bishop of Boston from 1911 to 1944 who knew what a bully pulpit was for, the Globe and other media in Boston rarely missed the opportunity to tell what Law called “good” stories about the church and its priests and nuns. Like the trains to South Station, they showed up day after day on a steady schedule.

But the Porter story, and later ones about Boston priest-abusers named John Hanlon and John Geoghan, in particular, directed media attention to a dark space where a desperate secrecy had long been part and parcel of the church’s dealings with clerical abusers, their victims and their families, and a succession of lawyers representing all sides.

Journalists are trained to follow the trail, not to concern themselves with the consequences, the good or the bad, that might flow from what they discover, then tell the story.

In the face of a bitter reaction to the series by certain entrenched Catholic interests and by many in the laity, that is what the Spotlight Team did under Globe editor Marty Baron and the team’s captain on the ground, Walter Robinson, across the days, weeks, and months of 2002.

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