Tom Doyle Reviews Spotlight

One fall morning in 2001 I was sitting with Dick Sipe in a hotel coffee shop in Oklahoma City. We were both there for depositions in a case in which we were both expert witnesses. Not long after we sat down Dick asked me “Have you talked to Mike Rezendes yet?” I told him I hadn’t and what’s more, I didn’t know who he was. Dick proceeded to tell me that Mike was an investigative reporter with the Boston Globe and had been talking to him for information on clergy abuse cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston. “I gave him your name. He’ll be calling you soon. This is really big”

Mike did in fact call me very soon after my visit to Oklahoma City. I was in the Air Force then stationed in Germany but back in the States on a short leave. Before the end of our first conversation I was impressed. This guy really “gets it.” He’s gutsy, very bright and most important, committed to finding the truth.

I already knew the foundation of the story. In March 2001 Kristen Lombardi, then with the Boston Phoenix, was doing a story about the cover- up of the late John Geoghan’s serial sex abuse of young boys in the archdiocese of Boston and the serial cover-up by Cardinal Law and his staff. Her story came out with a full-page picture of Cardinal Law on the cover. It was a great story and had a very important effect but nothing like the nuclear reaction caused by the cover story published by the Boston Globe on Sunday, January 6, 2002…the Feast of the Epiphany.

I happened to be back in the U.S. the first week of January 2002. I was at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama at a continuing education program for officers. I had remained in contact with Mike and had a head’s up that the story was coming out on January 6. It was a major, major explosion in the seemingly never-ending exposure of the Catholic Church’s bungling of the sexual and spiritual violation of minors by the clergy.

January 6 was only the beginning.   I cynically expected that the explosion would dominate the news, put some well-deserved fear into the bishops and wake up the complacent laity for a while and then after a couple weeks things would go back to the way they had been. There had been other explosions that we thought would cause a significant shakeup…..the Fr. Porter scandal in 1993, the revelation of widespread sex abuse of young seminarians at St. Anthony’s Seminary in California and St. Lawrence Seminary in Wisconsin, also in 1993 and then the Rudy Kos trial in 1997. This time I was wrong, very wrong. The aftershocks from the Globe’s Spotlight investigations are still happening. People have tried to figure out why the Boston phenomenon was different from anything else but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Martin Baron, the Globe’s editor, had the insight to see that the real story was about the Archdiocese’s systemic, destructive response to the victims and had the courage to take on the ultra-formidable Catholic Church to find the truth. What does matter is that the Spotlight Team had the brilliance, courage, determination and just plain guts to keep digging until the mind-boggling reality of what was really happening in the Archdiocese was forced into the light.

“Spotlight” is about the beginning of a new era in the clergy abuse saga. It opens with a scene in which an incredulous young police officer watches as then Father John Geoghan gets off the hook after raping one of his many young victims. An unnamed cleric and a young lawyer from the District Attorney’s office are on hand to put the fire out and keep the lid on. This provides a poignant backdrop for what happened over twenty years later.

Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer did a masterful job of selecting actors who not only bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the people whom they portrayed but who also brought out the people themselves. The real events from back in 2001 and 2002 were very fast-paced, often discouraging and always surprising. This comes through very clearly in the movie. What is especially amazing is that it does not come across as an “anti-Catholic” diatribe, which I’m sure will disappoint those who remain in stubborn denial about clergy abuse. The Catholic Church in Boston was probably the single most powerful social institution in the city at that time and this comes across when certain characters in the movie, as in real life, were confronted with the harsh reality of what was really happening. They were taking on one of the most powerful men in the city and perhaps the most powerful prelate in the American Catholic Church. One can feel not only the apprehension but also the fear in challenging an institution that no one messed with without great risk to one’s career.

Spotlight is not a fictionalized story using real events as its basis. It’s the accurate and riveting telling of a remarkable story using the real names and real events that made it happen. No single character emerges as the hero. Rather, the heroism of each major player is carefully and accurately brought out. Martin Baron was the newly hired Globe editor at the time. The Globe reporters were Walter Robinson, the Spotlight Team editor, Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes, Matt Carroll and Stephen Kurkjian.

The movie includes three other individuals who were not only significant but essential to the success of the Globe’s venture: Phil Saviano, a sexual abuse survivor; Mitch Garabedian, the Boston attorney who represented dozens of victims and who played a key role in getting the court to order the release of thousands of pages of documents from the Archdiocese; and Eric MacLeish, another attorney who had been representing victims for years and who continued to fight for them after the Globe’s revelations changed the playing field.

I’m not a movie critic so I can’t get involved in the technical aspects of creating an historical event for the screen. I was however, directly involved with the events leading up to and following upon the avalanche that let loose on January 6, 2002. This movie accurately tells the story of a phenomenon that changed to course of history for the Catholic Church but even more important, that changed the lives of countless victims of clergy sexual abuse in Boston and throughout the world.

A Footnote

For me it was more than ironic that Bernard Cardinal Law was the archbishop of Boston when the massive cover-up was forced into the open. Several years before I was working at the Vatican Embassy and first became involved with the clergy sex abuse issue with the case of Gilbert Gauthe in Lafayette LA. I joined forces with two courageous and insightful men who saw the sex abuse issue for what it really was before anyone else. Mike Peterson, a priest and psychiatrist, and Ray Mouton, an attorney, were both directly involved with the Gauthe case. Working together the three of us quickly realized that this was a problem that was not going away and that was rooted not in priests with psychosexual disorders but in a hierarchy that either couldn’t or wouldn’t do what had to be done.   At the suggestion and urging of several bishops, we undertook the task of preparing what started off as a general memo of suggestions on how to respond to reports of sex abuse but which ended up being what we referred to as “the manual.” This was a 96 page report on how to respond that also predicted that a failure to respond would cost the Church millions of dollars (we predicted a billion dollar loss in ten years) but would also result in loss of credibility, power and prestige. Our most important advice was that before anything else, the Church had to extend compassionate care and understanding to the victims. Our efforts were shuffled aside by the bishops’ conference. Its leadership claimed they knew everything that was in the “manual” and didn’t need anyone’s help to handle things, an assertion as credible as Captain Smith’s conviction that he had total control over the Titanic after its encounter with the iceberg.

The papal nuncio at the time, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pio Laghi was supportive and encouraging even though I doubt he fully appreciated the impending disaster. I must admit that neither Ray, Mike nor I fully appreciated it either but we were convinced that something extraordinary had to be done. I also turned to several prelates for advice and guidance as well as support. These were men I knew well, respected and trusted and whom I believed could be pivotal in getting the U.S. bishops to do something. They were the late Richard Keating, bishop of Arlington VA at the time and former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Bishop, later Cardinal, Tony Bevilacqua, then bishop of Pittsburgh; Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, and the man to whom I turned more than any of the others, Bernard Law.

Bernard Law was the archbishop of Boston at the time but had not been named a cardinal when it all started. His advice and counsel were very valuable as Mike, Ray and I put together our “manual” and with it, what we hoped would be an on-going action plan for the bishops. More important for me was his personal support. This was unknown territory at the time. The three of us were sincerely committed to helping the bishops and helping the Church because we believed they would be even more sincerely committed to doing what was right for the victims.

Cardinal Law had suggested that he use his chairmanship on a standing USCCB committee to set up a sub-committee devoted to dealing with the clergy abuse issue. Ray, Mike and I put together a plan for extensive research into all aspects of the issue as well as a comprehensive plan for dealing with individual cases that would be offered to the bishops with the suggestion that they use it as they saw fit. We had planned a meeting between the three of us and the Cardinal for May 1985 at a hotel near O’Hare Airport in Chicago. The purpose was to meet and put the final touches on our proposals, which he would then take to the bishops for approval and action. Shortly before the meeting Cardinal Law called and told me he couldn’t make it because of a major conflict but was sending then auxiliary Bishop William Levada as his representative. Levada arrived. We met. He voiced his approval of the entire plan. We thought that we had accomplished something.

About two weeks later, Bishop, later Cardinal, Levada called me and told me the entire project was shelved because the question was being handled by another committee, which was not true. He offered no other explanation and, quite frankly, I was too stunned to ask any probing questions. That was the end of it. I never got a satisfactory answer out of anyone including Cardinal Law. This all went down in May 1985. In June the body of bishops met in Collegeville MN and spent an entire day discussing clergy sex abuse. Ray, Mike and I were excluded from the meeting, which, according to feedback I received from several bishops including Archbishop Laghi and Cardinal Krol, was, with the exception of the talk by a Chicago psychologist, a waste of time.

I left the Vatican Embassy in January 1986 but stayed in contact with Cardinal Law for a few years after. Our contact and our relationship drifted into the mist after I went on active duty with the Air Force in 1989. Then came Boston, January 6, 2002. I was stunned by what I had learned and even more stunned by the arrogant and uncaring response of the man I had once trusted and admired. I have long ago ceased trying to figure out what happened to him. I know that he and his coterie of close assistants, many of whom became bishops, presided over one of the most destructive, dishonest, anti-Catholic and anti-Christian travesties in the history of the American Catholic Church. I also know that an extraordinarily brave team of reporters from the Boston Globe exposed that travesty, confronted it for what it was, and in so doing, changed the course of Church history.

A Postscript

The archdiocese of Chicago issued a response to “Spotlight” that basically said nothing like that could have happened in Chicago because the archdiocese had taken the early lead in confronting clergy sex abuse. This is simply a myth created by a P.R. outfit that has little or no knowledge of what was really going on in Chicago in the early nineties. Without doubt, had either the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times had an editor with half the guts that Marty Baron had and an investigative team even close to the caliber of the Spotlight Team, the tsunami that changed the course of clergy abuse history would have started in Chicago.

tomdoyle