Shining a “Spotlight” on Yesterday’s Journalism

A new film about reporters investigating Boston’s priestly sex abuse scandals gets several key points wrong—and overlooks several entirely.

Amid the accolades—including a Pulitzer Prize—awarded to the writers at the Boston Globe for their investigative reporting on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal in 2002, reviews of Spotlight, the recently released film about the Globe’s role in exposing the scandal, have reached new heights of fawning overstatement. Not surprisingly, the New York Times leads the list with headlines like “Portraying the Hunters of Predators.”

Beyond the headlines, some, like New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni, have used the film as a way to attack the “privileged status” of all religious institutions. Suggesting that Spotlight illuminates the false claims of a “War on Religion,” Bruni argues that while “it’s fashionable among some conservatives to rail that there’s insufficient respect for religion,” Spotlight demonstrates that the idea is “bunk.” For Bruni, “In more places and instances than not, they get special accommodation and the benefit of the doubt. Because they talk of God, they’re assumed to be good.” 

Far from being persecuted, Bruni claims, the Church “has been coddled, benefiting from the American way of giving religion a free pass and excusing religious institutions not just from taxes but from rules that apply to other organizations.” Never mentioning that the majority of the cases that were “exposed” by the Spotlight team of investigative journalists were decades old—prosecuted during the 1960s and 70s, a time when the Church was slightly less reviled at the Globe than she is today—Bruni fails to acknowledge that this was not a case of courageous reporters challenging the overwhelming power of the Boston archdiocese. The reality is that in 2002 the Globe was the most powerful institution in Boston—much more influential than the Church.   

While Boston was still considered a “Catholic” city because of the large numbers of Catholics living there, by 2002 most Catholics in the Boston area were not attending Mass regularly—or practicing the faith in any meaningful way. Having moved on from the faith of their (in many cases) Irish families, many members of this new generation of Catholics were embarrassed by Catholic culture and teachings—and did everything they could to break free of it. Several such Catholics worked at the Globe.

Eileen McNamara, the op-ed writer who is mistakenly credited in Spotlight with breaking the story of the clergy abuse cover-up, has demonstrated animus toward the Church in the past—and in the present.  In a 2003 op-ed directed toward those who are unhappy with the Church’s unwillingness to allow the laity to assume leadership positions in the Church—including the ability to hire and fire their own pastors—McNamara advised them to “declare victory [over the Church] and leave.” “What a waste of time and energy for creative and faithful Catholics to continue to stand with their noses pressed against the chancery windows, tugging on their forelocks, waiting for a discredited hierarchy to confer upon them a legitimacy that is already theirs,” McNamara wrote.

The clergy abuse scandal was not the first time McNamara took on a sensational case involving the sexual abuse of children. In the 1990s she promoted the preposterous panic surrounding allegations of satanic ritual abuse at daycare centers. Siding with the prosecution against falsely accused daycare providers in Massachusetts, McNamara published columns (only available on microfilm now) praising the prevailing wisdom of “believing the children” even when it was revealed that interviewers had prodded suggestible kids into fabricating stories of the most unbelievable abuse.

Beyond McNamara, Spotlight can help us in some important ways. First, it can help remind us of what happens when the mainstream media is the only game in town. It is notable that the independent Boston Phoenix was really the newspaper that broke the story of the cover-up of sexual abuse by former priest John Geoghan—but the Spotlight filmmakers did not shine a light on the Phoenix’s hard work. Despite what is depicting in the opening scenes of the film, the Globe did not “break” the story of the Geoghan scandal; Eileen McNamara published an op-ed on Geoghan that drew upon the investigative work Kristen Lombardi had done for the Phoenix in 2001—a full year before the Globe became involved. 

The Phoenix is mentioned dismissively in Spotlight when reporter Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, suggests that it is a paper that “nobody reads.” Failing to give attribution to Lombardi was a serious lapse by the filmmakers and the Globe reporters who were involved in every aspect of this film. The film’s wardrobe was meticulously chosen to capture the particular style of clothing favored by Boston reporters in 2002; filmmakers might have gone to such lengths to acknowledge the independent media journalists who really broke the story.

Still, the Boston Globe reporters must be credited with expanding upon the investigative reporting initiated by Lombardi by convincing Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney to order sealed court records to be opened. This was the real game-changer in Boston, because it gave the Globe reporters access to thousands of previously confidential documents covering decades of priestly abuse and secret settlements. And, while the Globe “Spotlight” team never acknowledges that it was the attorneys for the victims who wanted the records sealed in the first place, the decision by the judge to open these records shows clearly how little power the Catholic Church held in Boston in 2002—and how much more powerful the Boston Globe was.

While the Boston Globe continues to call the wave of cases that came to light following its 2002 reporting a priestly “pedophile” scandal, the reality is that other than a small percentage of the cases that involved prepubescent children, such as the Geoghan case, national data analyzed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice revealed that the overwhelming majority of cases of priestly sexual abuse involved priests and postpubescent boys. While such homosexual activities with minors are criminal offenses—and serious violations of priestly vows and the trust of the faithful—they are not examples of pedophilia or child molestation.  

In 2002, Joe Fitzgerald, a reporter from the Boston Herald, published an interview with a Boston priest who told him that the issue of homosexual priests was the “elephant in the room” in Boston. The priest told Fitzgerald: “The majority of these victims were not prepubescent; they were young teens, so it had nothing to do with pedophilia. It’s technically called ephebophilia, which is almost exclusively homosexual, and it isn’t about comfort; it’s about sex.” The unidentified priest continues, “The problem is, there’s a subculture of gay priests and everyone knows it. I went through seminary with a lot of them and got hit on. And when I reported it, I was harassed to a point where, emotionally, it was very difficult to get ordained. I’m not the only one who had to fight to get through it; I know guys who left because of it.”

The Boston Globe has never adequately addressed the role that homosexuality has played in the priestly abuse scandal. In fact, Eileen McNamara published a column in the Globe in 2005 criticizing the Church for even considering a policy that would expel openly gay seminarians from ordination—sarcastically asking, “Where is the long-awaited Vatican policy that would protect women and girls from priests who cannot control their heterosexual tendencies?”

It is likely that Spotlight will win many awards, because Hollywood seems to revel in films that portray the Church as an institution of oppression. Many reviewers are already predicting an Oscar for “Best Picture.” Still, Catholics can take comfort in the fact that this film is a film about yesterday—yesterday’s media and yesterday’s Church. Even the Boston Globe has moved on from the scandal—creating space and resources for Crux, a news website edited by veteran religion reporter John Allen dedicated to covering “all things Catholic.” This fact really bothers Eileen McNamara, who mocked Crux’s very existence as evidence of her former newspaper’s “embarrassingly indulgent coverage of the Catholic Church.” McNamara has found a place she can continue her rants against the Church: a regional public-media blog called Cognoscenti.   

Today, however, Boston’s faithful Catholics have reason for optimism. A few years ago, Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley told the National Catholic Register’s Joan Frawley Desmond: “When I came here, the priests were telling me to close the seminary—there were only 25 men. Now we have 70 men studying to be priests for the archdiocese, and we don’t have enough room for men from other dioceses. We have expanded the diaconate program: instead of one class every four years, we now have a class every year.” These increases in Boston mirror the national data on ordinations, according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate which indicated a 20 percent increase in the number of men to be ordained priests in 2015. 

While Spotlight helps us understand yesterday’s problems in the Church, it offers nothing to help us understand today’s Church. We remain a Church of hope and optimism—a Church led by a charismatic leader in Rome who has promised to continue the process of renewal and reform. The Church has offered apologies and restitution—pledging to protect her children. It is time to move on.

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About Anne Hendershott 104 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH