The Pulitzer-winning team of Boston Globe ( Original to Spotlight movie) talk small-town secrets, collective guilt – and whether anything has really changed within the church.
On the homepage of the Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese website, next to information on preparing for marriage, is a box labelled “Support, Protection and Prevention”. You have to scroll to see the first reference to children and click a link to find any mention of abuse.
In 2002, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a group of five investigative journalists, uncovered the widespread sexual abuse of children by scores of the district’s clergy. They also revealed a cover-up: that priests accused of misconduct were being systematically removed and allowed to work in other parishes.
The team’s investigation brought the issue to national prominence in the US, winning them the Pulitzer prize for public service. The journalists’ story, and those who suffered at the hands of the clergy, are the subject of Spotlight, a Hollywood movie starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. It is a love letter to investigative journalism and a reminder that, 13 years and some$3bn in settlement payments later, survivors in Boston and beyond are still waiting for satisfactory long-term action from the Vatican.
“The Catholic church often talks about this as pain that’s in the past,” says Spotlight’s co-screenwriter, Josh Singer. “I think the survivors would tell you they’re less interested in the church trying to make amends and more interested in the church protecting children in the future.”
Singer, who was a writer and editor on The West Wing, calls the Spotlight journalists of 2002 a “championship team”. Their player-manager was Boston native Walter “Robby” Robinson. His high school, which was across the road from the Boston Globe’s offices, employed three priests who were later suspended for misconduct. In the film, Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, represents the Globe’s old guard. He’s navigating a community that’s very Catholic and very close-knit, working on a contentious story for a paper that he says at the time was “too deferential to the church”.
“Every major city in the US has two things in common,” Robinson tells me. “They have an archdiocese and they have a major newspaper. I don’t know of a single city where, in hindsight, clues that this was going on didn’t surface way back when. If we’d been more open to the notion that such an iconic institution might have committed such heinous crimes I think people would have got on to this sooner.”
It was this implicit deference by the police, attorneys and, to some degree, the press that interested Singer in the story. In a key scene, a lawyer who represents the victims says: “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to abuse one.”
“That collective looking away was always interesting,” Singer says. “How had the community fostered this? That seemed to have bigger power and resonance, because that is similar to what’s still going on with Penn State or Jimmy Savile at the BBC”.
Phil Saviano was battling to get his story heard long before the Spotlight team’s stories were published. Saviano, a survivor who was abused by his parish priest from the age of 12, had sent the Globe information on the Boston clergy that reporters originally missed. In the film, Saviano (played by actor Neal Huff) tells the Spotlight team that, for a kid from a poor family in Boston, being groomed by his priest was like being singled out by the Almighty: “How do you say no to God?”
Saviano, now in his 60s, was one of the victims who refused a settlement from the church and retained, unlike others, his right to speak freely about his experience. He’s the founding member of the New England chapter of theSurvivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. After the Spotlight investigation, Snap’s membership swelled to more than 22,000 as victims came forward, according to its executive director, David Clohessy.
“Before Spotlight’s work, Snap members were usually ignored,” he says. “They were unsuccessfully trying to warn parishioners, parents, police, prosecutors and the public about this massive, ongoing danger to kids. After Spotlight’s work, people started to pay attention.”
“We call Boston the biggest small town in America,” says Rezendes. “Everybody seems to know everyone. The film-makers probed that pretty deeply, and were able to make a statement about the collective ability to speak out when you see wrongdoing.”