Friday 14 December 2018

Evil in the spotlight - the story of Boston Globe's exposure of clerical abuse

Nominated for six Oscars, Spotlight tells the story of The Boston Globe journalists who fought to reveal the clerical child abuse scandal that shocked the world. It's a film that will reverberate with Irish audiences

Spotlight cast: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James.
Spotlight cast: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James.
Winning team: Reporters Michael Rezendes, Ben Bradlee Jr, Sacha Pfeiffer, Walter V Robinson, Marty Baron and Matt Carroll
Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole
Michael Keaton in The Paper
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men
Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Lurking quietly among this year's Best Picture Oscar nominations, between flashy favourites like The Revenant and Irish hopefuls Brooklyn and Room, sits a very different, dark and dauntingly substantial film. Released in the US before Christmas, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight was admired rather than loved and seemed to be falling out of fashion before the Academy decided to nominate it in six different categories, including Best Director.

Proper order too, because Spotlight is that rarest of beasts in contemporary Hollywood, a grown-up film that cuts no corners and treats its audience like adults. And McCarthy's film tells a story that will seem eerily familiar to an Irish audience, for it recreates The Boston Globe's tortuous investigation into clerical sex abuse in that city's archdiocese.

In January of 2002, The Boston Globe published a front-page story that shocked the city, America and the world. Meticulously researched and prepared for over a year by the Globe's investigative unit Spotlight, it revealed that a former Massachusetts priest called John J Geoghan had molested and raped more than 130 children during what the paper described as "a three-decade spree through a half-dozen parishes".

More damningly still, the paper proved that Boston's revered Cardinal, Bernard F Law, had known of Geoghan's "problems" as far back as 1984, yet had moved him from parish to parish much as Father Brendan Smyth had been shunted disastrously across the country here. After being removed from the parish of Dorchester in 1984, Geoghan was given some psychiatric treatment and sent by the then-Archbishop Law to St Julia's parish, where he continued abusing children for a further 10 years.

Geoghan's reassignment happened despite extensive church knowledge of his crimes and the fact that he'd casually admitted in 1980 to molesting seven boys from the same family: he didn't even seem to know it was wrong.

The Spotlight team backed up their story with hard-won documentary evidence and the heartbreaking testimony of victims, one of whom, Patrick McSorley, described how Geoghan had come to the family home to offer condolences after McSorley's father's suicide, bought the boy an ice-cream and then molested him.

It was staggering stuff, and that, tragically, was just the start of it.

Four other priests from the archdiocese were subsequently revealed to have been sexually abusing children for decades, assisted by a similar pattern of secrecy and reassignment. And by the time the Spotlight team was finished, 19 priests and former priests had been identified as paedophiles, and a tide of law suits threatened to bankrupt the Boston archdiocese and unleashed a nationwide scandal within the American Catholic Church.

Some story, and as Spotlight's director Tom McCarthy pointed out to me when I talked to him last week, the most surprising thing of all is that it ever broke in Boston.

Boston is the most Irish of American cities: up to 20pc of its population claim Irish heritage, and Sweeneys, O'Malleys, Lynchs and Kennedys have worked their way into the highest echelons of political, legal and commercial power. As a consequence, the Catholic Church has long enjoyed a special place in the city's hierarchy.

"I lived in Boston, and went to school there," McCarthy told me, "and it's wonderful place, there's a real camaraderie and clansmanship, a strength of character and personality. But it's not always the most inviting place for an outsider - it can be a really difficult city to penetrate. And when you're living in a community that close, sometimes it's really difficult to step back and say: 'Wow, what's right and what's wrong here, what are we protecting, and why?' And a lot of good people got caught in the crossfire in Boston."

In fact, it was a Boston outsider called Marty Baron who played a huge role in making The Boston Globe story happen.

Baron, who's played in the movie by Liev Schreiber, arrived in Boston in the summer of 2001 to take over as editor of the Globe. Born in Tampa, Florida, and a Jew, Marty didn't find the city an easy place to fit into. "When I was researching the film," Tom McCarthy explains, "Baron told me that when he first arrived he didn't just feel like a newcomer, he felt like an outsider. Marty also said that although it's on the sea, Boston is one of those cities that looks inward. That's very astute."

This sense of a cosy clannishness that borders on the claustrophobic is best exemplified in a scene from Spotlight where Marty Baron is summoned to Cardinal Law's residence for an audience. There the Cardinal, who seems affable and avuncular, presents Baron with a Roman Catholic catechism and lets him know that the Church will be keeping an eye on him.

Law is played with steely charm by Len Cariou, whom some of you may know from the TV show Blue Bloods, and Tom McCarthy was careful not to undermine the seriousness of his film by portraying the Cardinal as a pantomime villain.

"What we tried to capture with Law," he says, "was who he was at the time all this happened. He was a very popular man in Boston, he was a very smart guy, he was very shrewd, he was very political and media-savvy, and he had a great sense by all accounts of his own importance. He drove around Boston in a big black chauffeur-driven car, and lived a very nice life, he had these big garden parties for all the important people."

Law was, in short, a man used to getting his own way, but Baron didn't care who he was, and when the Spotlight team came to him with the bare bones of their story, Baron backed them all the way.

The Spotlight team was led by Walter 'Robby' Robinson, played in the film with commendable restraint and subtlety by Michael Keaton. And when Robby came to Marty Baron with the first tentative threads of what would become perhaps the biggest news story in the city's recent history, he was understandably nervous because he knew he had a lot to lose. He's Boston Irish through and through, a city insider who played golf with one of the church's key lawyers, and had drinks with the archdiocese's unctuous PR guru.

Robinson knew how unpopular the story might make him and the Globe, and how one false step in building their case might destroy them. He also knew the paper needed to make amends for past sloppiness and for failing to follow up survivors' complaints. Though one columnist at the Globe, Eileen McNamara, had bravely stuck her neck out by writing about possible clerical sex abuse in the 1990s, the paper generally speaking had been guilty of leaving well enough alone. "What took you so long?" was a question Robinson and his team would be asked more than once when they talked to victims.

Time and again during Spotlight, Robinson is cornered by vested interests in the church and city who advise him to back off, and this, you sense, is a story that will end friendships and shatter faiths in a community that has always frowned on those who break rank.

One of the things that makes Spotlight such a special film is its emphasis on journalistic rigour, and in the end its story is as much about the reporting as the underlying crimes. We watch the Spotlight team doggedly cold-calling survivors and perpetrators, knocking on doors, fighting the legal system for access to files, combing phone directories and toiling through public records in dusty, half-forgotten basements, in one of which resides a dead rat.

This is the real, unglamorous work of journalism, and the film catches the essence of our grubby craft every bit as well as the 1970s Watergate classic All the President's Men, to which Tom McCarthy's film has been favourably compared. The director spent two-and-a-half years researching the story after being approached by Spotlight's producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust in 2012. They had bought the rights to the journalists' stories in 2009, but Robinson and company were sceptical that their dry and dogged enquiry could ever be made into a watchable film.

"I think one of the reasons for the producers approaching me was that they knew I was Irish Catholic," McCarthy told me, "they knew I went to school in Boston, they'd seen my movies and felt that I might approach the subject with a bit of empathy." For him, the cooperation and assistance of the journalists themselves would be a vital part in making a film that could do justice to their story.

McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer repeatedly interviewed the Spotlight team about the project and their lives. They combed through the Globe's archives and court documents, met with other Globe journalists, survivors of the abuse, lawyers involved over the years and experts on the clergy. Then, with commendable rigour, they went back to the Spotlight team to check their findings against the journalists' recollections.

Then the actors got involved, meeting with the characters they were playing and mining them for clues both personal and professional. "I think they're all pretty close, still," McCarthy says. "They spent a lot of time with these people, and had a great deal of respect for them and I think also saw them a great resource for really getting inside their characters, and finding out who they were."

Mark Ruffalo, who has been Oscar-nominated alongside Rachel McAdams for his performance in the film, got particularly close to his character, Michael Rezendes. After several long phone conversations with the journalist, Ruffalo came to Boston for the first of many meetings. "We sat down in the living room," Rezendes later told the New York Times, "and he opened up a notebook and turned his iPhone on. And he was asking me questions, not about how I did things but why I did them. Why I chose this profession, why I was an investigative reporter." At one point, Ruffalo even asked the journalist to read from Spotlight's script. "I thought, 'Gee, this is getting pretty intrusive,'" Rezendes reflected.

But for many months during pre-production, the future of the entire project was on a knife-edge. "I mean this movie was dead three times," McCarthy told me. "I thought 'Ah we're done', I said to my wife: 'Well we're free this year, we can plan a trip with the kids.' And then it was on again and off again, it was only through the persistence of all of us and my producers specifically, and even the studios, that we eventually got it done."

When Tom McCarthy was adding the finishing touches to Spotlight, he became a little nervous about how his own family would react. "Some of my siblings are still very involved in the church," he said, "and they were like: 'Isn't there another institution you could go after?' Ultimately, they were very supportive." But his mother was the person the director really worried about.

"She was at the premiere and she could barely speak afterwards, and I think it was really disruptive to her life for a couple of days until she could wrap her mind around it all, and I understand that. She's very proud of the movie now."

Journalism in the movies

From its earliest days, Hollywood has tended to portray journalists, and especially newspaper journalists, as slick, sleazy and morally reprehensible. The cowardly hack with the green visor and the armband was a stock character in early westerns, and in screwball comedies journalists were almost invariably sneering cynics. In His Girl Friday (1940), Cary Grant played Walter Burns, a New York newspaper editor who'd kill his granny for a scoop and sets out to sabotage his ex-wife and star reporter Hildy Johnson's engagement.

Kirk Douglas' (below) reporter in Billy Wilder's 1951 classic Ace in the Hole was even more despicable. Chuck Tatum was a philandering drunk who's been fired from 11 newspapers and is down on his luck in Albuquerque until he hears about a man who's stuck down a cave, and prolongs his rescue so he can turn it into a national story. Most of the newspaper men in Citizen Kane were morally suspect, and anyone's for a wage rise.

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole

But not all movie journalists have been reprehensible. In the often forgotten British thriller Front Page Story, Jack Hawkins played a Fleet Street editor who's more dedicated to his job than his marriage, and agonises over the preparation of campaigning exposés of poverty and injustice. Ron Howard's entertaining 1990s drama The Paper starred Michael Keaton (below) as another workaholic newspaper editor who battles to preserve his ethics in a rapidly changing industry.

Michael Keaton in The Paper

And then there's All the President's Men (1976), the greatest journalism film of them all, which was a pet project of Robert Redford (below), and lovingly and skilfully recreated the Woodward/Bernstein investigations into the Watergate break-ins. Somehow, director Alan J. Pakula managed to make two men touring Washington and knocking on doors with notebooks fascinating, and the film's dark and brooding atmosphere perfectly captured the mood of the Nixon era. Spotlight deserves to be included in its company.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men

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