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The movie “Spotlight” captures the essence of investigative journalism

Spotlight is based on The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of a major sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese in Boston. The investigation revealed that high-ranking members of the Church covered-up sexual abuse of children by settling claims out of court and allowing guilty priests to keep their jobs. The initial report covered the actions of a priest named Paul Geoghan who was implicated in numerous abuse cases, and a prominent member of the Catholic Church in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, who knew about the abuse for years. Spotlight, The Globe’s investigation team, published its first story on January 6, 2002 along with the phone number of a hotline allowing more victims to come forth with allegations. Numerous investigations followed, uncovering hundreds of cases with over 1,000 of victims in archdiocese across the US.

The screenplay was praised for its authentic depiction of the procedure and minutiae of investigative journalism. Spotlight’s team of four journalists maneuvered through a system dominated by the institution they were trying to expose. They faced an enormous amount of pushback, not only from the Church, but also from the court, law enforcement, parishioners, victims, and lawyers who were sworn to secrecy through confidentiality orders. Competition from other papers, namely the Boston Herald, compelled the team to remain discreet, and work the investigation as quickly as possible. Their main concern was covering the story with such meticulous detail and accuracy that the story would not go unnoticed by their readership, 53% of whom were Catholic.

Martin (Marty) Baron, the new editor-in-chief reassigned from Miami, was struggling with the changing world of newspapers at a time when the internet was cutting into the Classified business, and numerous papers were facing cutbacks, layoffs, and closures due to lack of readership. Baron wanted Spotlight to focus on reporting that has an immediate and considerable impact on readers. He stressed the importance of holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their actions. As the investigation unfolded, Baron refused to print the story until the team could prove the abuse was systemic and came from the top-down. He wanted to focus on the institution, not the individual priests, to ensure the Church would no longer have the power to bury the story.

The Spotlight team had previously read about the scandal in a few papers, including The Globe, but the articles did not have the investigative impact necessary to thrust the scandal into public scrutiny. One particular Globe column, written by Eileen McNamara, revealed that an attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, had accused Cardinal Bernard F. Law of knowing about Father John Geoghan’s abuse while reassigning him to different parishes as the abuse continued. But the column ended with the uncertainty that the truth would ever be known because the court documents were sealed. Baron then decided to file a motion to lift the seal on the documents, which was risky because it was considered as suing the Church.

Garabedian represented 84 individual cases against Father Geoghan. Unlike other lawyers involved in the scandal, Garabedian filed his cases in court. In return, the Church tried to bring Garabedian up on charges through the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers three times, and Garabedian was convinced the Church was watching him in an attempt to get him disbarred. Spotlight reporter Michael Rezendes pressured Garabedian to cooperate with the investigation by ensuring Spotlight had the reputation, determination and resources necessary to combat the Church.

A reluctance among victims to go public was a huge obstacle, both for lawyers and the press. The statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases was only three years and most of the victims didn’t come forward until they were adults. In addition, the charitable immunity statute capped damages at 20 thousand dollars so the victims didn’t think the stress of filing complaints was worth the reward. By the time Spotlight began interviewing victims, most had succumbed to substance abuse or suicide. As the team relentlessly searched for victims who were willing to talk, the reporters established trust by asking if they could take notes, and allowing victims to remain anonymous. Some clients were cooperative and wanted justice, others just wanted to be left alone.

The team sifted through 18 years of church directories to track down more priests who were involved in the scandal. As the reporters honed in on priests who had been moved from their parishes, they noticed a slew of terms that appeared to be official designations for priests who were accused of abuse. Such terms included ‘sick leave,’ ‘absent on leave,’ ‘unassigned,’ ‘emergency response.’ The team then created a database of 100 priests they suspected of abuse.

In a conversation with Rezendes, Garabedian revealed a loophole that would allow Rezendes to obtain the sealed documents. Garabedian had received testimony from an ex-priest, Anthony Benzevich, who claimed he witnessed Geoghan taking little boys up to the Rectory bedroom in 1962. When Benzevich told a bishop, the bishop threatened to reassign him to South Africa. 35 years later, Benzevich contacted Garabedian after Geoghan was charged with molesting 130 children. When Garabedian called Benzevich to give a deposition, he showed up with a lawyer and suddenly had a foggy memory. Garabedian eventually discovered an article about a priest, Benzevich, who warned church officials about Geoghan. Garabedian then filed a motion to depose Benzevich a second time. In Benzevich’s defense, attorney Wilson Rogers filed a motion opposing Garabedian’s motion. Garabedian was allowed to attach exhibits, 14 of the most important sealed documents, to his argument to depose Benzevich a second time. But the Church’s influence allowed for the documents to be removed from the courthouse. Rezendes then rushed to file a motion so the court would order Garabedian to refile the sealed documents.

Shortly after the 14 sealed documents were refiled, the judge ruled in favor of The Globe and ordered the seal on the documents in the Geoghan case to be lifted and any records missing from the public file to be resubmitted. The archdiocese’s lawyers appealed, and threatened legal action if any material from the confidential files was published.

Two lawyers, Eric MacLeish and Jim Sullivan, were reluctant to cooperate with the investigation because they signed confidentiality agreements with the Church. MacLeish had tried a case in court against Father Porter, but he was met with enormous pushback from the Church’s following. He then attempted to gain backing from the press to go after 20 other priests. He sent the story to The Globe, but the story got buried in the Metro section. MacLeish and Sullivan settled cases through private mediation because they feared retaliation from the Church. Sullivan eventually confirmed a list of 70 priests the reporters had discovered by searching church directories.

When the Spotlight team finally decided to print the story, they made sure they had enough follow-up stories to pushback against retaliation from the Church. The team went ahead and attached links to the previously sealed documents despite threats from archdiocese lawyers. They printed the story about the 70 other priests a week later. Over the course of 2002, the team published close to 600 stories about the scandal.

The fallout from the investigation led to public accusal of 249 priests and brothers within the Boston Archdiocese. The number of survivors in Boston is estimated to be well over 1,000. Cardinal Law resigned from the Boston Archdiocese and was reassigned to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the highest-ranking Roman Catholic churches in the world. Major abuse scandals were uncovered in over 200 cities around the world.

Whereas journalism was once revered as a respected and necessary institution, today’s journalists face obstacles far beyond those encountered by the Spotlight team. In recent years, investigative journalism has plummeted as The People’s obsession with celebrities continues to skyrocket. Without readership, journalists are left with little time, money or resources to thoroughly investigate stories. The growing trend of bureaucracy in government and the widening division between the two-party system adds tremendous stress to anybody aspiring to be a journalist.

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