The Spotlight team of journalists at the Boston Globe uncovered the story of a lifetime. In 2001, a new editor asked the team to look into the case of the priest who had been caught molesting children. What they found felt like an epidemic: 90 priests had been caught and quickly reassigned to a new church districts, sadly to molest again. They discovered that the truth had been swept under the rug by the highest power in New England and had stayed covered by a team of lawyers being bankrolled for it.The team of reporters followed every lead they could. Each rabbit trail lead to new victims who called themselves survivors, and for good reason. Many of the now grown children who had been molested had killed themselves. Most had turned to drugs or another kind of stimulant, perhaps to numb themselves from the painful truth.The three reporters Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes,, and Matt Carroll were brilliantly played by Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian D’arcy James. In an interview with NPR, (linked here) the Pulitzer Prize winning team revealed a lot about the work that was done through this story, about the heart of the heroic team, and about the making of the film itself.
Their bold boss Walter “Robbie” Robinson, played brilliantly by Michael Keaton, said that he didn’t know that he ever came across as harshly as he did, and after seeing “himself” in the film, he called Sasha to apologize for ever treating her rudely. I didn’t see rudeness. I saw and empathized with the entire team as they spent a year or more of their lives buried in painful interviews and research. The topic alone would exhaust any group of reporters, but the Spotlight team sat neck-deep in it for years in order to bring truth into the light.A few weeks ago, my class had the rare and incredible opportunity to Skype Mr. Matt Carroll. Hosted brilliantly by another teacher who used to write for the Boston Herald, she fielded questions that students posed so Matt could talk about the personal pain of writing a story like this. He spoke of the difficulty of his particular job and the excitement of finding evidence that they could finally print. He spoke of and his fear for his family and community at the time knowing one of the priests lived down the street from him. He talked about long days and months of answering phones after the story broke. He mentioned how wild it was seeing someone play him in a movie. His doppelgänger hated the mustache but conveyed the gentle intensity, sorrow and stubborn search for truth perfectly.Carroll said that the actors had one dinner out with the Spotlight team and in that short time picked up their mannerisms, accents, quirks. They all said that watching themselves on-screen was odd since the actors were so spot on.
To a group of reporters, it’s their job to interview as many people as possible and to research the minutiae of the story in order to gather details that show the whole truth. We readers forget that truth tellers rarely win popularity votes. They may be exhilarated in the hunt, but their hearts still drive them through the mire and stench of human depravity. Two of the three reporters did experience their own crises of faith, like many of the families who were wounded by priests at the time. The screenwriters were disappointed that Matt never had a crisis of faith after it all. He said he was a Presbyterian and still went to church and didn’t need one. I was glad that they didn’t fabricate one for him in the name entertainment. Matt was too. He spoke of the new Cardinal who is still working to heal the old wounds in Boston. Healing takes time.
We long for justice, and for some it comes in print, in the new-found empathy from friends and family, in the church’s own contrition and attempts at reconciliation in this aftermath, and even in a film fifteen years later that teaches a new generation of children to protect their bodies and let go of guilt.This difficult topic makes your blood boil, and rightfully so. You want to fight with the Spotlight team. You see the hours, days, years that they poured over old newspaper clippings, record books, information outlets, and their own notes before they ever printed a story. Journalism, it seems, is mostly about research, interviewing honest sources and getting the facts straight. Or, at least it used to be.
In the name of immediacy, news sites today too often print, quote, or tweet false stories and unresearched details knowing they can as quickly retract what they get wrong over the same mediums. Sadly, forsaking the truth used to carry consequences, made the writer almost as culpable as the criminals. Media conglomerates compete, as they always have, but at what cost?
It perhaps takes a film like this one, fifteen years after the story rocked the nation, to teach the lessons again and to remind the world that the truth will eventually come into the light and that the pen is still mightier than the sword.