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'Spotlight' Film, On The Boston Globe's Church Abuse Exposé, Debuts In Venice06:30Download

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Michael Keaton as Spotlight team editor Walter Robinson, left, and Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, in a still from the film "Spotlight." (Open Road Films)MoreCloseclosemore
Michael Keaton as Spotlight team editor Walter Robinson, left, and Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, in a still from the film "Spotlight." (Open Road Films)

Full-length films about two of Massachusetts' longest-running scandals make their debuts at the Venice Film Festival this week.

One — "Black Mass" — covers the life of convicted mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. The other — "Spotlight" — looks at how The Boston Globe exposed the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

The resemblance of the two stories is striking. Both are tales of shocking crimes, institutional corruption, cover-up and a crisis of faith that followed.

The first to premiere was "Spotlight."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zg5zSVxx9JM

The movie is set in late 2001 as investigative reporters for the Globe secretly work to uncover the crimes of former priest John Geoghan. They search for his victims, and seek to obtain sealed documents that show what church authorities did — and, more importantly, what they did not do.

Walter Robinson, who is played by actor Michael Keaton, was the editor of Spotlight, the Globe's investigative team that gives the movie its title.

"Reporters, we stumble around in the dark a lot," Robinson said. "We started out focused on one priest but very quickly learned that Geoghan was the tip of the iceberg, that there were many, many other priests."

It's a film that celebrates investigative reporting. Inevitably compared to "All the President's Men," it's an homage to those who scale walls or break them down — in this case, driven by stories of children wretchedly exploited by predators who were protected both by their collars and their bishops.

"The inherent drama that's here in this story is that we couldn't believe what we were uncovering," said Michael Rezendes, one of the reporters on the team. "We ourselves were shocked by what we were finding. First we had John Geoghan, and then we said, 'Hey, wait a minute, maybe there are six of these guys.' And then it was, 'Hey, wait a minute, looks like there might be 12. Is that possible?' "

As the movie makes clear, the number would go far higher.

The Spotlight team found that those in power knew about the abuse. That included the head of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, who continued the pattern of moving Father John Geoghan from parish to parish despite his history of serially molesting boys — including seven from one family in Jamaica Plain.

"As soon as we discovered that the church had made secret payments to victims of other priests — which one of the attorneys referred to as hush money — we began to realize that of course the church did know, that it had to know, and that its sole interest wasn't in the children," editor Robinson said, "it was in keeping the story quiet."

It was shoe-leather reporting with all its frustrations and tedium. But the movie conveys the passion of the diggers — each one pushed on by the discovery of even more outrages.

From left to right, Michael Keaton as Spotlight team editor Walter Robinson, Liev Schreiber as then-editor in chief Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., and Brian d'arcy James as reporter Matt Carroll. (Open Road Films)
From left to right, Michael Keaton as Spotlight team editor Walter Robinson, Liev Schreiber as then-editor in chief Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., and Brian d'arcy James as reporter Matt Carroll. (Open Road Films)

As Robinson, Michael Keaton is the intellectual steel. Rachel McAdams, as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, is the steady, compassionate listener who gains the trust of victims whose lives and faith were shattered. But actor Mark Ruffalo, as reporter Rezendes, is the heart of the team.

The unifying theme emerges in a scene between Ruffalo and actor Stanley Tucci, who plays Mitchell Garabedian, the complicated, abrasive and obsessed attorney for the victims. "If it takes a village to raise a child," he tells the reporter, "it takes a village to abuse a child."

"Institutional evil like the crimes that the church committed against its parishioners does not occur in a vacuum," said Tom McCarthy, who directed and co-wrote the film. "It occurs with a lot of people allowing it to happen, and maybe that's ignoring what's in front of them."

Actor Stanley Tucci, director Thomas McCarthy and actor Mark Ruffalo pose for photographers at the Venice Film Festival Thursday. (Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
Actor Stanley Tucci, director Thomas McCarthy and actor Mark Ruffalo pose for photographers at the Venice Film Festival Thursday. (Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

The movie ends with the first splash of the Spotlight team exposé in January 2002.

In real life, after those first stories were published, Cardinal Law — whose character only appears in one scene in the film — called an extraordinary press conference to respond.

"With all my heart I wish to apologize once again for the harm done to victims of sexual abuse by priests," he said in 2002.

But the cardinal often spoke in the passive voice, evading responsibility. He defended his actions and made both denials and assertions that would soon fall flat. Law insisted not once, Rezendes said, but "twice, and then a third time ... that there were no more sexually abusive priests in the Boston Archdiocese."

But weeks later, Rezendes explained, "they started pulling priests, suspending priests and announcing their suspensions at Sunday Mass."

The Globe would publish 600 more stories that year. By December, Cardinal Law was gone, having resigned despite his vow to stay the course.

In the title cards after the movie, the film notes that Law was moved to the Vatican and given leadership over its third most important basilica. When the audience at the film's debut here in Venice read that, it broke into laughter.

Then, the lights came up, just as they had in 2002 -- the secrets and the cover-up ordered from the top down had collapsed under the spotlight.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
David Boeri is a senior reporter at WBUR.

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