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In ‘Spotlight,’ filmmakers take a journalist’s care in retelling the story of church sex abuse

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: one of the year's most acclaimed movies and the journalism behind it.

    Reporters frequently don't come off well in the movies these days. But the new film opening in many cities this weekend is built around the investigative journalism that uncovered a major scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

    The fallout of that report, in turn, triggered numerous other investigations and revelations in other archdioceses.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • RACHEL MCADAMS, Actress:

    The numbers clearly indicate that there were senior clergy involved.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It was one major institution, the hometown newspaper, taking on another, the Catholic Church.

  • LIEV SCHREIBER, Actor:

    We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top down.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The new film "Spotlight" recounts The Boston Globe's investigation revealing that the church knew about sexual abuse of children by priests and covered it up, even allowing guilty priests to keep their jobs.

  • ACTOR:

    I don't want you recording this in any way, shape or form. Nothing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The film is, in that sense, the story of the story.

  • Director Tom McCarthy:

    TOM MCCARTHY, Director, "Spotlight": We became fascinated with the minutiae, with the procedure, with the craft of journalism.

    And I think, early on, we committed to not only writing, but portraying that accurately as possible. And I think we felt and the rest of my creative team felt that, if we found it exciting, hopefully, our audience would.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The "NewsHour" was there in Boston in the spring of 2002, covering the case as it unfolded. The Globe's efforts were led by then-editor Martin Baron, who was new to the city and the paper. He'd read a column by a Globe writer about one case of abuse that was under a court seal.

  • MARTIN BARON, Former Editor, Boston Globe:

    I thought it was an extraordinary story. Here was a priest who had been accused by 130 people of having abused them as minors. That was just an extraordinary number in and of itself.

    And I was just struck by the fact that I haven't heard of the case. I said, well, have we considered challenging that confidentiality order? Maybe we should do that.

  • LIEV SCHREIBER:

    I would like to challenge the protective order in the Geoghan case.

  • ACTOR:

    You want to sue the Catholic Church?

  • LIEV SCHREIBER:

    We're just filing a motion, but yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the film, Baron is played by actor Liev Schreiber.

    Today, Martin Baron is editor of The Washington Post. He talked at length to the filmmakers about his experience in Boston and told us of seeing the results.

  • MARTIN BARON:

    I think this movie is quite authentic. I think they got the basics right. They really understood the subject matter. They understood how newsrooms work. And I think that's one thing that's impressed a lot of journalists, is that they get the life of journalists so right. It's incredible. We're not used to seeing that in movies.

  • MICHAEL KEATON, Actor:

    We got cover-up stories on 70 priests, but the boss isn't going to run it unless I get confirmation from your side.

  • ACTOR:

    Are you out of your mind?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The film has an ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. It closely follows the Globe's investigative Spotlight team as it slowly unwinds the story, including the actions of a priest named Paul Geoghan, implicated in many abuse cases, and his ultimate superior, Cardinal Bernard Law, then the very prominent leader of the Catholic Church in Boston.

    The Spotlight reporters culled 18 years of church directories to track over 900 active and retired priests. The team then created a database which allowed it to match a target list of 100 priests with allegations of abuse.

    They homed in on priests who had been moved from a parish, sent on sick leave or otherwise removed from active service and left — quote — "unassigned."

    In 2002, the NewsHour talked to Walter Robinson, who headed up the Spotlight unit.

  • WALTER ROBINSON, The Boston Globe:

    The documents to me were breathtaking in the extent to which they knew, the cordiality of the correspondence between the cardinal and Father Geoghan and the other bishops and Father Geoghan.

    Here's a fellow who they knew was accused of and had committed these acts against scores of kids, and the letters were, "Dear, Jack, we hope you're coping with your problem."

  • TOM MCCARTHY:

    Boom, and then connect their thoughts.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Director McCarthy says he and his team took great care in how they would tell such a raw story.

  • TOM MCCARTHY:

    I think we were very careful not to sensationalize the story, not to be gratuitous with the telling again, to approach it as the reporters did.

    We had the great, good fortune of sitting down with several survivors of abuse, namely two depicted in the film, Joe Crowley and Phil Saviano. And these men and the courage they exemplify in talking with us and dealing with this every day of their lives and becoming advocates for survivors, it's hard not to be greatly impressed by it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The scandal began to snowball even as the church vehemently pushed back. The Globe published its first story on January 6, 2002, with the headline "Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years." It also printed the phone number of a confidential call-in line, bringing in many new allegations from victims.

  • TOM MCCARTHY:

    Why does it take us so long to see something that in hindsight seems so obvious? There was a lot of talk about this, a lot of murmurs and whispers. Something is going on. Something is bad.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In portraying the process of investigative journalism, the film has drawn comparison to "All the President's Men," which documented The Washington Post's pursuit of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago. Inevitably, that means also capturing the changing world of newspapers at a time of cutbacks, layoffs and closures.

    Today, Martin Baron says this:

  • MARTIN BARON:

    Well, we're a profession that's under tremendous pressure, a lot of financial pressure. And so, clearly, it's going to be more difficult, given that there are fewer resources to do it. This is very expensive work to do, and yet we have to commit ourselves to doing it. Somebody needs to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable, and we're the ones who have that particular role in our society.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Boston Globe would win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the church sexual abuse cases.

  • MARK RUFFALO, Actor:

    They knew, and they let it happen.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Spotlight" is receiving early critical praise, including some from high reaches of the Catholic Church.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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