Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy weren’t necessarily digging for a scoop while researching the 2002 Boston Globe exposé of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal for the screenplay that would become Spotlight. After all, they were already standing on the shoulders of giants – the Globe’s Spotlight team of investigative journalists had won the Pulitzer Prize for their series of articles that revealed how the Boston archdiocese, led by Cardinal Bernard Law, had shielded predator priests for more than three decades, shuffling them to different parishes when they molested children and shelling out millions to victims in confidential settlements.
Not only had the Globe published an official book documenting the Spotlight team’s findings, Betrayal, but all their articles, including the more than 600 stories published in 2002 — leading to Law’s resignation — were available online. Plus, the screenwriters had access to many of the Globe’s key people, including those depicted in the film: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).
But one of the film’s most important twists — one that even eluded the Globe — fell into the filmmakers’ laps by accident. [The following contains SPOILERS.] In Spotlight, which the pair co-wrote and McCarthy directed, the dramatic weight of the film is epitomized by a line from the crusading attorney played by Stanley Tucci: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” The film asks the difficult question: Was everyone, including the media, too deferential to the Church while crimes were happening in their backyards?
Late in the film, Robinson pressures one of his sources, a lawyer named Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), for information, and the slick attorney throws it back in his face: “I already sent you a list of names… years ago!” he says to Robinson and Pfeiffer. “I had 20 priests in Boston alone, but I couldn’t go after them without the press, so I sent you guys a list of names… and you buried it!”
Except that exchange never actually happened. Nor did the scene where Pfeiffer searches the archives and brings the clipping of the December 1993 story to Robinson, proving MacLeish correct: it ran on B42 and didn’t include any of the priests’ names. And a later scene, where Robinson admits to his colleagues that he had been the Metro editor back in ‘93, accepting his role in not catching the story sooner, didn’t happen either.
In reality, these sequences played out during the screenwriting process — when MacLeish told Singer and McCarthy. Though they already knew the main beats of the story they wanted to tell, they met with the Boston attorney — who’d represented numerous plaintiffs in complaints against the Church in the early 1990s — if only to help with casting. But not long into their chat, MacLeish dropped the bomb. “It was a little bit like the moment that’s in the movie: You had 20 priests’ [names] in Boston?” says Singer. “My reaction was quite similar to Rachel and Michael’s in that scene: That can’t possibly be true. Tom and I sort of looked at each other but didn’t say anything. But to double-check, I went back to the archives, and this article popped up, buried on page B42 [on the Metro section]. I was flabbergasted. I called Tom as soon as I got the article and said, ‘What do we do?’”
They emailed Robinson the story, not knowing what to expect. Robinson responded quickly. “He owned up to it,” says Singer. “He had just taken over Metro and didn’t remember the story but, ‘This was on my watch and clearly we should’ve followed up on it.’ When we went to write the scene in the movie, we based it a lot on what Robby said there.”
In the film, Keaton accepts his share of responsibility and asks his team, “Why didn’t we get it sooner?” And in real life, Robinson doesn’t dodge. “It happened on my watch and I’ll go to confession on it,” says Robinson, who recently returned to the Globe as an editor at large. “Like any journalist who’s been around this long, I’ve made my share of mistakes. But I have no memory of it. And if we’d found it in 2001, I don’t know if I would’ve had a memory of it then either. Looking at it from this vantage point 22 years later, I just have to scratch my head and wonder what happened. Should it have been played more prominently? In hindsight, based upon on what we later learned, yes, obviously.”
For Singer and McCarthy, the revelation was a dramatic gift, even if they had to utilize some artistic license. “That moment was probably the one moment where we took something that was not [precisely true] and we felt like we had the right to include it,” says McCarthy. “To me, this is where the movie gets really compelling, because it certainly isn’t black and white. I think it raises the specter of just good reporters going after a bad institution, into more of a question of societal deference and complicity toward institutional or individual power. Intellectually, Josh and I really started to engage on a whole new level when we started to tap into that.”
Because McCarthy and Singer had concluded from their research that the Globe was probably guilty of sins of omission, if not commission, when it came to its coverage of the Church in the early 1990s. The December 1993 story plays a pivotal role in the film, but the filmmakers were already paddling in that general direction. In fact, before MacLeish spilled his secret, the film was more focused on an August 1993 article than ran in the Globe’s Sunday magazine.
Back then, Boston was riveted by the case against Rev. James Porter, who was ultimately sentenced to 18-20 years for abusing dozens of children in multiple parishes. Though Porter had worked in the Fall River archdiocese, south of Boston, Cardinal Law became a loud critic of the media’s coverage, and in particular, what was being printed by the Globe. In May 1993, Law lashed out, saying, “The papers like to focus on the faults of a few. … We deplore that. The good and dedicated people who serve the church deserve better than what they have been getting day in and day out in the media. … We call down God’s power on our business leaders, and political leaders and community leaders. By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” In a coincidence that even Hollywood wouldn’t dare make up, one of the Globe’s top editors broke his leg and almost died the very next week.
But even if Law didn’t have a direct channel to God, he was the most powerful Catholic in the United States, with access to the White House and absolute credibility with his constituency of Roman Catholics – who made up 53 percent of the Globe’s readership and were not eager to believe that its Church may be responsible for protecting degenerate clerics. Ande Zellman edited the Sunday magazine story, written by Linda Matchan, and the reaction to their story at the Globe was immediate — as Schreiber’s Marty Baron would say, “from the top-down.”
“It certainly created a lot of waves internally,” Zellman says. “I think there was a level of institutional courtesy towards the Church. The coverage after that was scarce.”
But if there was some editorial restraint, it was reflected by public opinion. “For the most part, [stories about clergy sex abuse were greeted with] disbelief,” says James Franklin, the Globe’s former religion reporter who wrote the December 1993 story that MacLeish cites in the film. “It was regarded as something extraordinary, as something obscene. There was always a suspicion that guys like me, guys like us, were sniping unfairly.”
Matchan encountered the same resistance. “After I finished that magazine story, I thought, there’s so much more to say about this. I wanted to write a book about it,” she says. “So I contacted an agent, and she loved the idea. And I wrote a book proposal, she sent it out to a lot of publishing houses, and she got back these letters that just said, ‘This is a great proposal but nobody would ever read a book about sexual abuse by the clergy.’ That was the thinking in those days.”
“Every archdiocese is in a city with a major paper — everybody missed this,” says Robinson. “Who can imagine that such an iconic institution could be responsible for causing such a devastating impact on the lives of thousands of children and covering it up? It’s almost beyond belief.”
Even with the 1993 hiccups, it’s essential to note that the Boston Globe was the first to crack a scandal that reached far beyond Boston. As has been revealed in subsequent investigations around the world, Boston was not unique, and the Church has been forced to shell out billions in settlements to the victims of clergy sex abuse in other states and countries. “Robby, to my mind, is a hero,” says Singer. “The whole, Why didn’t the paper get this earlier? — we sort of put that on Robby in the movie, because Robby is a symbol for us, the Everyman. In a lot of ways, he is our way in to the movie, and we wanted to turn it back on the viewer. Because to me, this is a collective failure, and it’s a question for all of us: Why didn’t we get this earlier? It’s noble in how he takes the blame for it, how he falls on his sword. I think we found that incredibly heroic, because that also was the interaction we had with him.”
Robinson has been front and center in the film’s promotion, in part because the film captures his profession at its best, at a time in 2015 when most newspapers and media outlets are slashing staff and eliminating investigative reporting. “We’re reporters and we stumble around the dark a lot,” he says. “We start out pretty damn ignorant, and we don’t even know how to ask the right questions until we sort of dig around for awhile. And the film shows that. The film shows that it’s sort of a two steps forward one step back approach. And by doing it that way, by having us uncover [our initial oversight], Tom makes it possible for a pretty large audience to confront something that they might otherwise avert their eyes to.”