I finally had the chance to see Spotlight, which received a Best Picture nomination from the Oscars this year. I'd been dying to see the movie since as a long-time former reporter for The Boston Globe, I knew many of the characters in the movie, which focuses on the Spotlight team's expose of Catholic priests who molested children and the Boston archdiocese's coverup.
I also was anxious to see the movie since I was The Boston Globe reporter who first broke the story about a molesting priest in Massachusetts. Let me say right up front that Spotlight is a riveting movie that gets a lot right. I particularly loved Mark Ruffalo's depiction of Michael Rezendes, one of the Spotlight's reporters. And I think Liev Schrieber's depiction of Marty Baron, the Globe's top editor at the time, is spot-on.
However, there are a few things the film doesn't get quite right. The biggest disappointment is the way it glossed over the reporting that had been done by Globe writers about the priest scandal well before the Spotlight team sprang into action in 2001.
In a recent Facebook post, my son noted that I wrote the first Globe article about Father Porter, a Fall River priest accused of molesting upwards of 100 altar boys and girls, in 1992, almost 10 years before the Spotlight series ran. We (I and other reporters) followed that first story up with many other articles.about Father Porter and how he had been sent to a treatment center for errant priests and moved from parish to parish despite complaints about his misconduct.
The movie does briefly show one clip about the Father Porter story, and it also makes mention of how the attorney representing the victims of Father Porter, Eric MacLeish, gave the Globe a long list of other priests who had been accused of similar misconduct. In the movie, the character who plays Walter Robinson, the Spotlight editor, acknowledges that the story about all those priests was buried in the Metro section.
Even so, the movie gives the path-breaking work that Eric MacLeish did short shrift and doesn't really explore why the Globe buried the story of the 20 priests and didn't follow up for almost a decade. It's very simple: At the time, the editor of the Globe, who happened to be Catholic, feared being accused of Catholic-bashing and so he sent out an edict that there was to be no more Father Porter stories -- i.e., no more stories about molesting priests.
I still vividly remember the editor yelling at our then magazine editor because she had the temerity to run a long magazine piece about Father Porter (which had been in the works for months) after his edict came down.
As the film makes clear, it wasn't until Marty Baron, a Jewish outsider, came in as editor of the Globe and encouraged the Spotlight team to look at the priest scandal, that the paper really dug into the issue and did its prize-winning work.
One more nitpick if I may. The film makes it sound as though Mark Ruffalo's character suddenly discovered the research done by Richard Sipe, a former priest and sociologist in Baltimore. Based on confidential surveys he had done of priests, Sipe estimated that up to 6 percent of American priests had molested children, and that only half of U.S. priests were celibate.
The film made a big deal out of this discovery, which I find rather funny, because all the Spotlight team had to do was go to their own morgue, where they would have found a page one story from 1990 about Sipe's presentation of these findings at the American Psychological Association in Boston. I know this because I covered his talk and wrote that 1990 story. I remember well that the battle that raged in the Globe's newsroom about whether the piece should be buried in Metro or splashed on page one. To the credit of the Globe's page one editor at the time, it made the front page.
I realize that people's memories are short and that the film was mostly based on the memories of the Spotlight reporters and editors involved. Even so, it would have been nice if the Spotlight crew had given a little more credit to their colleagues who laid the groundwork for them. But hey, that's show biz right?