There’s a scene late in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” in which a reporter visits a courthouse to secure a document sure to break open The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of allegations that priests had molested children.
Before he eventually obtains the information he is seeking, reporter Michael Rezendes, portrayed in the film by actor Mark Ruffalo, is stonewalled by what seems like every bureaucrat in the building.
The often menial task of acquiring court documents crucial to the telling of a news story is something that plays out every day in newsrooms and courthouses across this country. The lack of enthusiasm from the government worker on the other side of the transaction is something familiar to journalists who have flocked to see the film, which took home Best Picture honors at Sunday’s Oscars.
In the movie, where the stakes are so high and the tension has built for nearly 90 minutes, the scene manages to send a rush of adrenaline through audience members, even those who might not otherwise care about the type of work done by reporters at local newspapers.
A typical day at a newspaper might not be the most exciting job, but many films have tried hard to make it seem that way. What “Spotlight” does so well is illustrate first the importance of what journalists do, then allow the tension to build from there.
In the 40 years since the release of the film adaptation of “All the President’s Men,” few print journalism films have managed to earn the respect of both a general audience and the members of the media they attempt to portray — a generally cynical bunch. I’ve yet to hear of a reporter or editor who didn’t appreciate the way the film went about telling the tale of the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning efforts without sensationalizing the process.
I saw the movie twice, first with my wife and a pair of our non-journalist friends, and then with my parents. It had a real impact on the latter, who sat stunned for several minutes before my father hyperbolically proclaimed it the greatest film he had ever seen.
Discussing it with them afterward, I could see why “Spotlight” had such an impact on my folks. Newsday reports on Long Island priests that followed the Globe’s initial coverage in 2002 linked the man who baptized my brother to allegations of abuse.
If you haven’t gone back and read any of Newsday’s coverage from that time — much of which was written by North Fork resident Steve Wick — since seeing “Spotlight,” I’d recommend it. The paper did an outstanding job covering the impact locally.
According to bishopaccountability.org, which features links to local press coverage, “The Diocese of Rockville Centre reported [in 2004] that it knew of abuse accusations against 66 priests in the diocese since 1950.” Nine priests linked to the scandal served parishes in Riverhead and Southold Towns, according to the site, including the former pastor at St. John the Baptist in Wading River, where I was baptized. (The Riverhead News-Review also reported on the allegations against that priest).
At the time the Globe launched its initial report on abuse in Boston, the Catholic churches in Mattituck, Cutchogue and Southold all had priests serving who at some point in time had allegations leveled against them, according to the Bishop Accountability site, which links 90 Long Island parishes with priests who were publicly accused of sexual abuse.
The initial Boston Globe story, “Church allowed abuse by priest for years,” even makes reference to Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, a previous supervisor of John Geoghan, the priest at the center of that report and much of the film.
My mother, a St. John’s University graduate who attended an all-girls parochial school and later taught at Catholic schools in Riverhead, Port Jefferson and Patchogue, hasn’t had the same relationship with the church since the scandal. That’s not a coincidence.
She admits it’s hard to look past the abuse that went on at our parish, where she regularly left her young sons alone for religious education classes or to play basketball.
It would be disingenuous for me to imply that knowledge of the abuse led to my estranged relationship with the church. It’s really just one of many reasons I insert the word “lapsed” into my response anytime someone asks about my faith.
It’s hard to imagine any Catholic going to see “Spotlight” and walking away from it without feeling a range of emotions.
Like the newspaper coverage that preceded it, the film tells a story that needed to be told — and not just in what it says about the church. It also shares a narrative about the important roles newspapers play in the communities they cover. With public support and the proper resources to operate, local newspapers will continue to be an essential part of all our lives.
As someone who makes his living in ink, that message is one I hope all our readers take away from “Spotlight.”
Grant Parpan is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group.