Spotlight, the movie: A personal view

Lessons learned from survivors of sexual abuse, the strange intoxication of Hollywood & the power of investigative journalism

By Matt Carroll <@MattatMIT>

I’m one of the journalists portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” which was just released. It follows our team of investigative reporters at The Boston Globe as we slowly uncover decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the systemic coverups of the misdeeds by their superiors.

Our team watched it for the first time before an audience in September at Toronto International Film Festival 2015. Since then, we’ve been to screenings in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. The experience has been everything you might expect it — great and wonderful and, frankly, a little weird.

Great because it’s a tremendous, dramatic movie, without a car chase in sight. It’s a bunch of folks talking, and then talking some more. Occasionally there’s a raised voice. That’s kind of it for action. It seems simplistic, but it works — the tension builds as the worlds of the newsroom and church collide and the systemic coverups of clergy sex abuse are brought to light. Audiences have been absorbed at the screenings I’ve attended, thanks to the fantastic script, written by Tom McCarthy, the director, and Josh Singer.

It’s wonderful because it tells a compelling story about the survivors of clergy sexual abuse in a sensitive, non-graphic way. Our original stories in 2002 were a catalyst for helping many survivors get the help they needed, including financial aid from lawsuits and settlements with the Catholic church. Hopefully this movie helps a new generation of survivors, whether abused by priests or others.

It’s also wonderful because it shows the power of investigative journalism, through the tedious grind of slowly building a major story, thread by thread. One scene pays homage to the gritty work involved in building a spreadsheet of suspect priests. A spreadsheet, of all things! And the scene is great. (OK, so I’m biased: I was the data geek. But I still think the scene is fantastic.)

We worked for five months on that first story. That was a big investment for the Boston Globe — four reporters for 20 or so weeks. But it’s the kind of investment that can be needed for investigative work, and it paid off, beyond our wildest dreams. Over the course of a year, our team expanded to 10, and we wrote 600 stories. Our work led to the uncovering by other news organizations of similar scandals across the country and globe. We won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

And weird because… well, because it’s pretty damn weird to see someone playing you on the silver screen. The killer thing is that actor Brian d’Arcy James plays a better me on the screen than I am in real life. Plus, he sports a cooler mustache than mine (he hated it and couldn’t wait to shave it off).

A flood of memories

After watching the film in Toronto, our team stood on stage with the actors and basked in a standing ovation from a packed crowd of 2,000 in the Princess of Wales theater. It was humbling and gratifying to be rewarded for all our hard work with such a warm embrace.

It was a wonderful moment and we all enjoyed it. What I didn’t expect was the flood of decade-old memories. It was a little overwhelming: The interviews with survivors that so often ended in tears. Talks with priests accused of abuse. The guilt of paying so little attention to my wife and our four children for the better part of a year. And the fascinating ups and downs of making this movie.

Talking to victims

We spent months meeting with people who had been abused by priests. It could be traumatic for them, and stressful for us. Often they broke down in tears as while retelling horrific tales.

One of the first I spoke with was Maryetta Dussourd, who lived in Jamaica Plain, a Boston neighborhood. She had not been directly abused — that happened to three of her boys and four of her nephews. Maryetta had invited a parish priest, the Rev. John Geoghan, into her home, where he became a familiar presence. So familiar that he even tucked her children and nieces and nephews into bed at night.

She later discovered Geoghan had molested the seven kids during his nighttime ritual. It was a stunning betrayal, in her own home, by the priest she had made part of her family. A man she was so fond of that she had bought Geoghan a blue teddy bear, after learning that his uncle, a monsignor, had taken away his own teddy when he was a child.

I first met one Maryetta on a cold fall afternoon. We had found a letter in court files from Maryetta’s sister to the archdiocese, which described the abuse. I cold-called at Maryetta’s house and by sheer luck she was home from work, the victim of a bad cold. I mentioned Geoghan’s name. Her eyes immediately welled with tears as she beckoned me in.

We sat and talked that first day for four hours — or rather I listened as Maryetta cried and talked nonstop about how Geoghan had devastated her family. Her husband had divorced her, a son was homeless. She had been so religious, a daily attendee at church. And look what this man did…

I left her house profoundly shaken by the enormity of her loss. I was shaken even more when I discovered that Geoghan lived a short walk from my house in West Roxbury, where my wife and I were raising four young children. I taped his picture to the refrigerator and warned the kids to run if they saw him.

There were a lot of Maryetta’s out there, and we spent endless hours speaking with them. So many victims were relieved that someone would listen to them. Some had been telling parents, siblings, even other priests about the abuse. In many cases, no one believed them. Some were even shunned. It devastated them. Here they were, scared and hurt, haltingly trying to tell people of the horrors and humiliations they had endured. And people refused to believe them. Priests don’t do that type of thing, they heard again and again.

When the Globe stories started running in January 2002, victims inundated us with calls and emails. Because of all the stories we wrote that year, many victims received help, both financial and in counseling, from the church. Amazingly, people still have continued to contact us with more stories. Unfortunately, sexual abuse is not an issue that is going away.

All of us on the team hope the release of the movie helps another generation of survivors.

In the end, the stories uncovered systemic corruption inside the Catholic church, which shielded sexually abusive priests from prosecution, and shifted them from parish to parish, where they were free to abuse again. It was a system that been ongoing for decades. As we soon learned, it was a worldwide phenomenon. Boston just happened to be where the stories started. The city was no different than the hundreds of other places around the world where the abuse and coverups occurred.

(BTW: Geoghan, later convicted of abuse, was murdered in prison by an inmate who said he’d been molested as a youngster.)

Hollywood comes calling

Two young producers, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, approached us in 2007 about doing a movie about our work. Their drive and enthusiasm impressed us. They were so much fun to talk with.

It took them awhile to get traction. Work finally took off when they enlisted director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, who co-wrote the script with Tom. The writing is so marvelous; the script is so nuanced. It gets it right — the newsroom, the tedium, the tensions, the excitement of small victories. It’s all there.

Tom and Josh spent hours interviewing each of us. The last interview with me was at a picnic on the Globe deck, overlooking scenic Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester (yes, that’s a joke). After we finished our long conversation, Josh leaned back and said, more to himself than anyone else, “Now all I have to do is find a story.”

“Good luck with that,” I said, and we both laughed. I was only kind of kidding. I thought: A movie about people making phone calls? Typing on computers? Reading through documents? Hmm. I had no idea how he and Tom would distill months of reporting into a two-hour movie. But they did it, and did it well.

We spent a long time with the actors, who tried to pick up our movements, our ways of speaking. I met Broadway star Brian d’Arcy James, who plays me, in New York over a long dinner. He asked about details —were my glasses always hanging around my neck? What did I wear for clothes back then? (Khakis, dress shirts, ties.) How did I pronounce the word “horror”? He even asked how much coffee I drank. When I told him it was “heroic” amounts, he laughed — but there’s always a Dunkin’ Donuts cup on my desk.

It was fascinating to be inside the movie machine. The attention to detail was amazing. Some scenes were filmed at my “house” in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. (By coincidence, my real house is around the corner.) For a few short scenes, the movie company swapped out the newer street lights and replaced them temporarily with older lights used a decade earlier. Who would have noticed the newer lights? Not me, and probably not many people. But they took the time and expense to do it right.

Similarly, the Spotlight office was recreated at a studio in Toronto to look like … well, our offices in real life. The desk are set up the same way, Robbie’s desk is at the back in a small, glass-walled room, and even the cork notice board is in the right place.

Despite all the time we spent working on the movie, I have to admit, I didn’t really believe the movie would happen until a year ago when Tom and Josh came to Boston, took us out to supper, and told us they would start filming in a few weeks. Up until then the whole idea seemed too surreal, I guess.

The Spotlight team

Walter “Robby” Robinson (played by Michael Keaton) was our boss. He is a charming guy, a great raconteur. And that’s the side of him most people see, including those he interviews. But I once heard him describe himself, when dealing with some hapless target, as “The Hammer.” It is an apt description. No one hits harder, when hammering is required. He can use either skill to get the story.

Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) had back then, and still has, a fiery grit and stubborn determination to get the job done. Like the proverbial bulldog, once he had the bone, no one was taking it away from him. If he had your back, like he did with so many survivors, they knew he would go all the way for him. They admired and respected him.

Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) created emotional connections with both survivors and — amazingly, to me anyways — priests, getting them to tell their stories. They saw her as a empathetic soul. That’s an incredibly difficult and sometimes under-appreciated ability. She’s also a wonderful writer. (Robby, Mike, and Sacha are still at the Globe.)

Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) is the skeptical editor. Slattery does a fantastic job capturing Ben’s swagger and bluntness. Ben is a former hard-nosed hockey player. He worked stories like he was skating into the corner after the puck — hard, and all business. He writes books now, most recently, “The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams.”

Marty Baron (Liev Schriber) has this low-key intensity that makes you pay attention. He doesn’t speak loud — I’ve never heard him raise his voice — but he doesn’t have to. He gets his point across, without drama. He’s now the editor of the Washington Post.

Me, I was the geek. (Brian d’Arcy James) I reported and wrote, but also created the database of bad priests. It was an effective tool for developing leads about abusive priests who were placed on sick leave or were transferred frequently because of complaints. Creating the spreadsheet is a nice scene in the movie, and among the few (maybe the first) that makes a database a key part of a journalism movie. Go geeks! Brian later said: “Until I met you, I thought a spreadsheet was something you bought at Bed Bath & Beyond.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of team members who are not in the movie, because the film only covers up to our first story on Jan. 6, 2002. Kevin Cullen, Michael Paulson, Tom Farragher, Steve Kurkjian (not on the team in movie, but later added) and Mark Morrow all played key roles as the story exploded. We ended up writing more than 600 stories that year. 600! It’s amazing. I don’t know how many days we were not on page 1 that year, but we were on it a lot more than we were off. Also, so many people from the newsroom also contributed stories.

We’re often asked how truthful the movie is. My answer is: Look, it’s a movie. They condensed months of work into two hours. Stuff gets lost; scenes get changed. But Tom and Josh managed to create truthful fiction, if that makes any sense. They tell our story and it rings true.

One aspect I like is how right they get the newsroom and investigative work. It’s tone perfect. Newsrooms are not fancy; stressed journalists throw around an occasional F-bomb and dress like they could not care less; investigative work almost always entails a lot of drudgery. All of this is captured in its nitty-gritty glory.

What would we do differently? We’d handle the documents in a very different way. We did something that was relatively innovative for the time, which was to put incriminating church documents online so readers could see for themselves how the church handled abusive priests. Each time we got a new box of documents, we’d select a handful and put them up.

Putting documents online is routine now, but it was relatively new then. One regret I have is not putting all the documents online. We literally had tens of thousands of pages; we posted a selection. We collected boxes and boxes of documents as the story moved forward and the church released files about allegations against priests. That was partly because of a lack of technology (no high-speed scanners) and partly because of my own lack of foresight.

What’s obvious now is the huge appetite for entire databases of primary source, searchable documentation. It wasn’t quite as clear then how deep the hunger for that information would be. Well, live and learn. I can only sigh as think about the dozens of boxes of court documents that are now buried in an Iron Mountain facility somewhere. If it happened now, every page would be online and searchable by the end of the business day.

It’s been 13 years since the first story. Mike has been at the Globe the whole time. Ben left to write books. Robby and Sacha ventured off, but returned to the mothership. I left the Globe in 2013 after 26 years to join the MIT Media Lab and start the Future of News initiative, where I run conferences focused on the big questions facing the industry, such as the verification of news imagery, and working with students who are creating tools that can help newsrooms. We released our first app, NewsPix, this past summer.

The personal cost of a big story

The work was the most intense and wonderful of my career. But there was a price. Family life took a big hit. I felt intense guilt at neglecting my wife, Elaine, and our four young kids. I love my family time and it was mostly gone, swept away in a months-long run of 15-hour days and seven-day work weeks. That was tough on everyone, especially our kids, who ranged from about 14 to 8 years old. Fortunately, Elaine was a rock. Early in the series, when it was abundantly clear the long hours were going to last for a long time, we talked about it. She told me to throw myself into the story. This, she said, was the story of a lifetime. She was right, and I did throw myself into it, but it was still hard at times.

On one of the rare nights when I was home for a family supper, the kids were very rowdy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Elaine had been letting them get away with more, because she didn’t have the time or energy to corral them every minute.

I was stressed and tired, and lashed out at the kids, telling them to calm down. Alex, who was about 12, said, “What do you care? You’re never here anyways?” That struck home.

Dealing with stress during that year-plus time was an issue. My default stress reliever is running, but I didn’t have much time for that. Instead I turned to creative writing. Getting up at 5 am and working a half-hour or 45 minutes a day, I banged out a couple of horror novels, “The Called” and “The Black Druid.” Are they any good? Let’s just say they’re trashy but fun. The main point was to create an escape from all those pesky facts that we had to deal with day in and day out.

What we learned

The movie can be gritty and somewhat dark, but in the end it’s hopeful. We made a difference. We helped some people abused by priests. Not everyone, but we did help. And that is tremendously gratifying.

So many survivors helped us. Here’s to the survivors for their courage and perseverance in seeking justice and in righting their own lives. To name two: Phil Saviano, portrayed wonderfully in the movie by Neal Huff, was the passionate survivor who had key documents that helped get us moving at a crucial point. And Patrick McSorley (played movingly by Jimmy LeBlanc), who in some ways became the face for abuse victims and tragically committed suicide a couple of years after the stories broke.

The movie is also love song to investigative reporting, as several people have pointed out. Unfortunately, investigative reporting has taken a beating over the past decade-plus. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, the financial woes hitting newsrooms mean there are simply fewer bodies trying to fill news holes. Secondly, the era of Tweeting the news in a voracious 24/7 news cycle puts heavier emphasis on shorter, shallower reporting. For those reasons and others, there seems to be many fewer reporters doing investigative work, which by its very nature is labor-intensive. A story can take a reporter, or team of reporters, days, weeks, or even months to complete. That’s a lot of resources to put on the shelf for a long period when there are tweets to be tweeted. (FYI: I like Twitter and tweet prolifically.)

I’m convinced news organizations who do the best investigations, on issues that resonate with their readers, will do best in the long-term. It’s a central theme of Spotlight.

Matt Carroll has run the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab since leaving the Boston Globe in 2013. He can be followed at @MattatMIT. He worked at the Boston Globe for 26 years, mostly as a database reporter.

Other writings and my “3 to read” newsletter on media are here.

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