Many believe that all evil, no matter how secret, eventually shows itself. The truth comes out in many ways. In the best case, people see their own wrongs and change. Sometimes, society simply stumbles upon the truth about hidden evils without intending to. Other times, it requires hardworking, dedicated journalists to expose the ugly truth. The film “Spotlight” tells of an evil that journalism exposed.
The film introduces the crowded Boston Globe headquarters of July 2001. The editor-in-chief retires, and Martin Baron replaces him. Baron was a quiet, serious Jewish man new to Boston. At his first meeting with the editors, Baron asked everyone to introduce themselves. Immediately after, Baron asked for a follow-up story on the Geoghan case.
The Boston Globe had recently released a short story on a Catholic priest named John Geoghan. He had sexually molested children for 30 years. In court, 80 such cases had been filed against him. The lawyer for the cases, Mitchell Garabedian, claimed to have evidence that the local cardinal, Bernard Law, knew long ago but did nothing. The evidence was in sealed documents. Baron wanted to file a court motion to unseal the documents.
Baron immediately received shocked faces and opposing opinions. Roughly half of all the Boston Globe’s readers were Catholic. “Gutsy call for a first day,” Walter Robinson, the editor for the Boston Globe’s secret investigative team, Spotlight, said afterward.
Baron asked Spotlight to investigate the case. Spotlight had three journalists. They worked downstairs, together in a room with their messy desks. Mike Rezendes was their most outspoken member. Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll were the other two. They were more put-together. All three were dedicated reporters.
Spotlight interviewed Phil Saviano, the leader of the Survivor’s Network for those Abused by Priests. Saviano passionately wanted justice for the abuse victims. “You guys have to understand,” Saviano said. “This is big. This is not just Boston. It’s the whole country, it’s the whole world! And it goes right up to the Vatican!”
The reporters began interviewing more victims who had become adults. The interviewed victims told tragic stories. Though many of them were grown men, many broke down during the interviews. The victims found their memories very hard to share.
Rezendes contacted Richard Sipe on the phone. Sipe was an ex-priest who stayed in the Catholic faith. After resigning, he spent 30 years studying abusive priests. “Look, Mike,” Sipe said. “The church wants us to believe that it’s just a few bad apples. It’s a much bigger problem than that.”
Spotlight also interviewed Eric MacLeish, a lawyer who handled priest abuse cases. For certain priest abuse cases, Pfeiffer found no court records of settlements. MacLeish explained that the cases were legally confidential and dealt directly with the church. “We got them a sit down with the bishop and a little dough. That’s the best they could hope for,” he said.
The church, MacLeish said, promised in such cases to remove the abusive priests. Robinson asked how he had made sure the church honored its word. Macleish couldn’t answer.
Spotlight team members crowded around a phone with their notebooks and interviewed Sipe again. Robinson said they found about 13 abusive priests in Boston and asked if the number sounded right. Sipe answered, “No, Robby. That sounds low to me. My estimate suggests 6 percent act out sexually with minors.”
Sipe’s words made the group of journalists go silent.
Based on Sipe’s statistics, Spotlight estimated 90 priests in Boston abused children. They analyzed all the priests who moved frequently between parishes. Spotlight theorized the church moved such priests to cover up abuse cases. They found 87 priests. MacLeish emailed Spotlight a list of 45 priests he settled cases on. Spotlight wanted to release this as a story.
Baron disagreed and told them, “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests…. Show me the church manipulated the system so that these wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me that they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic. That it came from the top, down.”
Spotlight continued traveling all over Boston to interview victims. Garabedian revealed to Spotlight that the sealed documents were made public. Rezendes went to access those documents. He found that the file was empty. The church had made sure of it.
The Boston Globe had to file a motion to refile the documents. When that happened, Rezendes ran like a maniac for the legal office to get the public documents before the other newspapers. After combating many roadblocks in the legal office, he got them. The documents proved that Cardinal Law knew about Geoghan’s actions since 1984.
The Boston Globe planned expose both the crimes of Cardinal Bernard Law and the abusive priests. They wanted to confirm 70 priests.
For final confirmation on the names of priests, Robinson asked his friend, Jim Sullivan. Sullivan was a lawyer involved in several priest-abuse cases. Enraged, Sullivan told Robinson to leave his house. When Robinson walked out, Sullivan came after him. He cursed at Robinson some more, then asked for the list. He circled all the priests on the list as confirmation.
The Boston Globe released the story on a Sunday in January 2002. That morning, Pfeiffer and Carroll went to the office to take calls. In the article, they left Spotlight’s phone number. That morning, their phones rang off the hook. Most of the callers were victims. Law resigned in December that year.
These journalists endured a long battle. They lost sleep and time with their families over this story. Pfeiffer didn’t share the struggles of the investigation with her strongly Catholic grandmother. She didn’t think her grandmother would understand. Carroll found a rehabilitation center for abusive priests in his own neighborhood. He asked Robinson if he could tell all his neighbors who had children. Robinson said he had to wait, because the news story wasn’t ready yet. Rezendes, who attended church as a child, said he would never go back. Even Robinson and his friend Sullivan conflicted until the end. Yet, to Spotlight, the story was so important.
At the end of the film, Rezendes gave Garabedian a Boston Globe issue with the story early. A touchy character, Garabedian didn’t say a proper thank you. Rezendes knew that Garabedian was grateful deep down. When Rezendes left Garabedian’s office, Rezendes saw a mother and two little kids through a small window to another room. Garabedian told him that both children had been molested. “Keep doing your work, Mr. Rezendes,” Garabedian said.
“Spotlight” isn’t a lighthearted film. But it gives hope, both to journalists and everyone else. So much injustice occurred under those Catholic Church leaders. The abusive priests served an institution dedicated to God. Yet, they had evil hearts, which the Bible says God hates. Those church officials, no matter how evil, couldn’t hide it forever. In the end, God brings the truth through personal conviction and, sometimes if the evildoer won’t change, relentless reporting.