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Film Shines A 'Spotlight' On Boston's Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in this week for Terry Gross. In the Neil Simon film "California Suite," Maggie Smith plays a film star up for an Academy Award. But when she doesn't win, she doesn’t take it well and leaves before the evening's over. So later that night...


MAGGIE SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) What was the best picture?

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) The best picture? You were there when they announced it. It came after the best actress.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) I was in a deep depression at the time. What was the best bloody picture?

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) You mean what was the best picture of the year or what did those idiots pick as the best picture of the year?

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) What won the award you [expletive]?

CAINE: (As Sidney Cochran) I am not an [expletive]. Don't you call me that.

SMITH: (As Diana Barrie) Sidney, I have just thrown up on some of the best people in Hollywood. Now is no time to be sensitive. What was the best picture?

DAVIES: What was the best picture from the past year is a question we'll have the answer to late Sunday night at the conclusion of this year's Academy Awards. We’ll be talking about two contenders on today's FRESH AIR. In the second half of the show, we’ll hear an interview with the director of "The Big Short" about the global economic crisis of 2008. We’ll start with "Spotlight," the story of a group of journalists at The Boston Globe who in 2002, published a groundbreaking investigation of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The film has earned six Oscar nominations. Our guest, Tom McCarthy, is nominated for best director and for best original screenplay, which he co-wrote with John Singer. Joining us in this interview is Walter Robinson, a veteran reporter and editor who headed the investigative unit at The Globe known as the Spotlight Team. The Globe's work on the clergy sex abuse scandal won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. I spoke to Tom McCarthy and Walter Robinson last fall. We began with a scene from "Spotlight." The Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron, played with Liev Schreiber, is having a strategy meeting with the investigative team. The clip starts with Walter Robby Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, talking about how Boston’s cardinal, Bernard Law, must have been aware all along of the church scandal they’re uncovering. The other two reporters are played by Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo.


MICHAEL KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) Law had to know. That's why he had the reaction because he knew there were others.

LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron) I think that's the bigger story.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Sacha Pfeiffer) But the numbers clearly indicate that there were senior clergy involved.

SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron ) That's all they do - indicate.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Mike Rezendes) Are you telling me that if we run a story with 50 pedophile priests in Boston...

SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron) Mike, we'll get into the same catfight you got into on Porter, which made a lot of noise but changed things not one bit. We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy - show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn't have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top down.


DAVIES: Tom McCarthy, Walter Robinson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Walter, I want to begin with you and talk about this remarkable story. How did it get started?

WALTER ROBINSON: It got started at the very end of July, 2001. The Globe got a new editor, Marty Baron, who came to us from the Miami Herald. And that's important because in Florida, virtually everything is public. And Marty got to Boston, and he read a column by Eileen McNamara about a case - lawsuits against a priest allegedly involved in sexual abuse in which the court records had been sealed by a judge. So the personnel records of the priest were not available publicly. And in her column, Eileen had written the truth may never be known. And to Marty Baron, that's like waving a red flag. And so in his very first news meeting in his first day at The Globe, he asked, has The Globe considered going to court to get these records? And of course, nobody had. And later that same day, he called myself and Ben Bradlee Jr., my superior, into his office and asked me as editor of the Spotlight Team, to have our team begin investigating the case of this one priest, Father John Goeghan. And we set out to do that, and very quickly discovered that Father Goeghan was the tip of a quite-large iceberg, that there were many, many other priests - we thought perhaps 15 or 20 at the time - who had done the same thing, yet the archdiocese had covered up their crimes by making secret settlements. And eventually, as we learned, we got it up to 70 priests and then 90 priests. And in the end, it turned out to be almost 250 priests.

DAVIES: Now, this was a huge story, and it unfolded over many months. I know, Walter Robinson, that you grew up Catholic, had 12 years of Catholic education, I believe. And I wanted to ask, as you got into this, how did the church push back? What kind of pressure did you feel?

ROBINSON: The church was the most important and politically powerful institution in Boston. Boston is the most Catholic of the major archdioceses in the country. And the church had such power that if legislation it didn't like was before the Massachusetts legislature, they could get it killed. And so there was always that sense of that when you approach the church, you had to be very, very careful because of its power.

DAVIES: I want to play a scene from the film. Walter Robinson in the film, who is played by Michael Keaton, is having a drink with a guy named Peter Conley, who’s played by the actor Paul Guilfoyle. And Tom McCarthy, maybe you can kind of set this scene up and tell us what's happening before we listen to it.

TOM MCCARTHY: This is rather late in the movie. Robby, played by Michael Keaton, is summoned to this bar for a little sit-down, what is put forth as a sort of friendly chat about where the investigation is headed. And he’s sort of gently leaned on to consider what the implications may be. This was yet another example of the obstacles these reporters faced from the community and city that they love very much and that they were involved in. And they're telling this story about a very iconic institution in Boston.

DAVIES: And the character who he's having a drink, what is his role here?

MCCARTHY: He's sort of a powerbroker in town, sits on a lot of boards, sat on the board of BC High, I believe. Is that right, Robby?

ROBINSON: Not BC High specifically, but on the board of Catholic charities...


ROBINSON: ...And was also an influential adviser to the cardinal.

MCCARTHY: Right, and, you know, is someone who reached out, as suggested in the scene, possibly on the behalf of the archdiocese.

DAVIES: Right, Cardinal Law is the head of the archdiocese. And we'll also hear them refer to Marty Baron, who was the new editor at The Globe who had pushed this investigation. OK, so this is from the movie "Spotlight," and we're going to hear Michael Keaton, who plays the newspaper editor and investigative reporter Walter Robinson. Let's listen.


PAUL GUILFOYLE: (As Peter Conley) You know, you got a lot of people here respect you, Robby - the work you do.

KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) That's good to know.

GUILFOYLE: (As Peter Conley) You know, it's because you care about this place.

KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) Yeah.

GUILFOYLE: (As Peter Conley) That's why you do what you do. It's who you are. You know, people need the church more than ever right now. You know, you can feel it. And the cardinal - you know, the cardinal, he might not be perfect. But we can't throw out all the good he's doing over a few bad apples. Now, you know, I'm bringing this up to you because I know this is Baron's idea, his agenda. I've got to tell you, I mean, honest to God, I mean, he doesn't care about this city the way we do. I mean, how could he?

KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) This is how it happens, isn't it, Pete?

GUILFOYLE: (As Peter Conley) What's that?

KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) Guy leans on a guy and suddenly, the whole town just looks the other way.

DAVIES: And that's Michael Keaton and Paul Guilfoyle in a scene from "Spotlight." You want to say anything about that scene, Tom McCarthy?

MCCARTHY: Well, only that I think - look, Josh and I went back to Boston time and time again and sat with as many people as we could - not just the reporters...

DAVIES: That's Josh Singer, your co-writer on the story...

MCCARTHY: Yes, Josh Singer, my co-writer and I. And, you know, in some of these cases, like this particular scene, it is a composite of a number of conversations that we had with the reporters about conversations I had with people in the community. And I think, you know, it's tricky with films like this - right? - because you don't have really - although the church was - the institution of the church was seen as the bad actor in this story. They weren't a active antagonist throughout the story. In fact, they're rather passive, they're quiet. But they have a lot of people. They have a lot of presence. Their power from the pulpit was very, very palpable (laughter) in Boston at the time. And they had a lot of friends.

DAVIES: The film really captures the business of journalism. It's remarkable to me that so much of it is really about how reporters do their work. And I spent 20 years as a reporter for a daily paper, so I particularly appreciated this. And, Walter Robinson, one of the interesting things here is that this was before the age when everything was online. I mean, the Internet was around, but it wasn't like reporters could hit a few keys and get a lot of public records. And there's a fascinating part here where you guys had to go to old catalogs of the Catholic Church to find who the priests were who had been moved around. You want to just talk about that a bit?

ROBINSON: Sure. How quaint that seems nowadays. You know, we were dealing with an institution that had no public records. You couldn't send them a public records request. They operated in secret, and they were protected by the law. They didn't have to file tax returns. One thing they did do is they published an annual directory that was like a phone book. And it listed every parish in the archdiocese, and it listed every priest - about 1,500 priests. And each year, they published this. And we knew of several priests who we had done research on that they had been put in categories like sick leave, awaiting assignment in an archdiocese, like all others, that had so few priests that they couldn't afford to let anybody languish on the sidelines. So we finally said let’s take these directories, and let's find every priest who's ever been in one of these categories. And for everyone who's ever been in that category, we're going to create a record of every assignment he has ever had. And it took us three weeks of really hard work to do that. And in the end, we came up with records on 87 priests whose assignment patterns and such things as the sick-leave designation made us very suspicious that they had, in fact, molested children. And when the records finally came out in the following year, there was an amazing number of priests on that list, the vast majority, who matched up with those who had actually abused children. One of the things that I'm amused about by that - when we were doing that, we had a reporter, Matt Carroll, who was our computer-assisted reporter, who was entering information in his computer. And, you know, I'm a 20th-century guy, and I wandered over to his screen. And on his screen was something with vertical lines and horizontal lines, and I said, well, what is that? And he said, it's a spreadsheet. That was my - or our very first spreadsheet.

DAVIES: This is a film about journalism, and I wanted to ask you both if you have particular feelings about journalism in film - you know, either films that get it right or get it wrong. Walter Robinson, what about you?

ROBINSON: Well, I guess I'd have to say that most films about journalism don't get it right. I'm just delighted, as are my colleagues, that this film just nailed it. They - what we actually did is so accurately and genuinely portrayed in this film - the reporting steps we took, how making the sausage isn't always a pleasant task to watch, how reporters disagree with one another, how we stumble around in the dark, how, sometimes, we find the most important things quite by accident, how we make mistakes in our reporting and how we double back, but always, and certainly in this case, you know, with a mind - we have to get this story, and we have to get it out.

DAVIES: Walter Robinson directed The Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy child sex abuse. Tom McCarthy directed the film, “Spotlight” about that investigation. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re listening to my interview with Tom McCarthy who directed the film “Spotlight” and Walter Robinson who directed The Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy child sex abuse.

I want to play another clip from the film. And this is a moment where there's an argument among the reporters on the Spotlight Team. Mike Rezendes, who's one of the reporters, thinks that you've got great material, you should publish now. He's played by Mark Ruffalo. And Walter Robinson, who is played by Michael Keaton, says, no, we have to keep digging. Let's listen.


RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) We got Law. This is it.

KEATON: (As Walter Robby Robinson) No, this is Law covering for one priest. There's another 90 out there

RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) Yeah, and we'll print that story when we get it, but we got to go with this now.

KEATON: (As Walter Robby Robinson) No, I'm not going to rush this story, Mike.

RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) We don't have a choice, Robby. If we don't rush to print, somebody else is going to find these letters and butcher the story. Joe Quimby from the Herald was at the freaking court house.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mike.

RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) What? Why are we hesitating? Baron told us to get Law. This is Law.

KEATON: (As Walter Robby Robinson) Baron told us to get the system. We need the full scope. That's the only thing that will put an end to this.

RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) Then let's take it up to Ben, let him decide.

KEATON: (As Walter Robby Robinson) We'll take it to Ben when I say it's time.

RUFFALO: (As Michael Rezendes) It's time, Robby. It's time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, OK? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We got to nail these scumbags, we got to show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.


DAVIES: And that's Mark Ruffalo - also in there, Michael Keaton from the film "Spotlight," which is directed and co-written by our guest Tom McCarthy. And the Michael Keaton character, Walter Robinson, headed that investigative team. He's also our guest. Tom McCarthy, you put together this terrific ensemble cast, you know, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton and Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci. How much contact did the actors have with the characters that they were playing, the reporters? And did you encourage that?

MCCARTHY: Look, these guys are pros. They take their job very seriously. And as soon as they were hired, they reached out. They found a way. I was usually hearing about it from the reporters themselves being like, hey, I'm sitting - Mark Ruffalo's up here, he's in my office, or Rachel McAdams is reaching out and asking me a lot of questions via email. And look, most people don't know who these reporters are. They're not public personas. But I can tell you to the one, these actors really capture the essence of each of them. It was really exciting work to watch take shape on set. And, you know, these reporters stayed involved not only though the script stage and the research stage, but they were on set all the time. And they just had a major impact, I think, on the authenticity of the film.

DAVIES: They were on set a lot?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, yeah, it was great. Yeah we would have them...

DAVIES: Just because they wanted to be there or why?

MCCARTHY: They wanted to be a part of it, and we wanted them there, specifically Robby and Mike were probably up there the most. Even Marty Baron made it up - took some time out of The Washington Post. And I remember one day we were talking about one of the penultimate scenes in the film in Marty's office. And it starts with Marty correcting copy, and we're like, blue pen, red pen, blue pen, red pen, what would they use? And I was like, well, there's Ben Bradlee Jr., why don't we ask him? And Ben was like, red. So red it was. And every little detail like that matters. We had a very special day, Dave, the first day we moved into the "Spotlight" set, which we had to build. Steve Carter built this massive reproduction of the newsroom and of the Spotlight office, which is a small office where the four reporters worked tucked away in the bowels of The Globe. And the first day we went on set, the reporters were there with us. And it was just so fascinating to watch both them and the actors explore the space for the first time. And they sort of just automatically gravitated to their desk. And I don't even think they realize this, but to the one, they started rearranging the desk as they would've had it. It was really great to watch.

DAVIES: You know, Walter Robinson, late in the film, it emerges that many years before, you had gotten a tip from someone - I think an attorney who represented the archdiocese - that you'd actually gotten a list of priests who may have been involved in abuse - in fact, a guide that might have led to a story like this many, many years before. Is that true?

ROBINSON: Yes, it is. In 1993, I had just become metro editor of The Globe, and we ran a story deep inside the paper. One of the attorneys had given The Globe a release saying that he had identified 20 priests - most of them were deceased or retired - but 20 priests who had allegations against them, and he had gone to the archdiocese. And the story played inside the paper, inside The Globe. The Herald, the other paper in town, had a similar story that was not prominently displayed. And when we began researching our stories in 2001 and 2002, and we found the Herald version of the story - we didn't actually even find our own, given the difficulty of finding stories at that time or keeping track of them - we didn't actually remember that story. And, yes, it was a story that should have provoked our interest in 1993, and it just - it didn't. Do you know that the daily newspaper business is funny, and every day, there are literally hundreds of people who are clamoring for attention of a big daily newspaper, and you've got 30 or 40 stories a day that you're publishing and decisions made on the fly and a lot of stories that get pitched never get done because we don't have the resources. A lot of people call and we - sometimes we just don't listen, or we don't believe it's possible. You know, people have conspiracy theories. Well, you know what? Every now and then, there is a real conspiracy, and we miss those things. And that's the daily news business.

DAVIES: That story in January of 2002 was huge - got a huge reaction. What followed? Where did this end up going?

ROBINSON: Well, the story, because it relied on the church's own documents, it built a powerful foundation that the cardinal knew had covered up crimes and reassigned this one priest, Father John Geoghan, who probably had over 400 victims in total. And once that happened, people were shocked. The cardinal came out. He apologized. He said, well, but we put him back in parish because we had two competent doctors assert that he was ready. And two days later, we came in with a story that said the doctors were his family general practitioner. The other one was a psychiatrist who is notable because he had been accused of sexually abusing his own patients. And once that story appeared, people, even the cardinal's closest supporters, started to walk away from him. And then came more stories about more priests and then, within a couple of weeks, the story saying that the archdiocese had settled cases secretly involving 71 priests that we knew of. And eventually, as you know, we published 600 stories that year. The lid blew off. Many people sued. Judges ordered all these records made public. And eventually, in Boston, we discovered that close to 250 priests had molested thousands of children over a half-century.


ROBINSON: And the church had kept it all secret.

DAVIES: Tom McCarthy, Walter Robinson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Tom McCarthy directed the film "Spotlight" about the Boston Globe investigation into clergy child sex abuse. Walter Robinson ran that investigation. "Spotlight" has earned six Oscar nominations including best picture. After a break, we’ll speak with Adam McKay, director of "The Big Short," which is nominated for five awards. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.