Although Spotlight tells the story of corruption and cover-ups in the Catholic Church, the film’s co-writer Josh Singer explained in an interview with Creative Screenwriting that was secondary to the movie’s plot. Josh said, “This story isn’t about exposing the Catholic Church. We were not on some mission to rattle people’s faith. In fact, Tom came from a Catholic family. The motive was to tell the story accurately while showing the power of the newsroom—something that’s largely disappeared today. This story is important. Journalism is important, and there is a deeper message in the story.”
So if the cover-up was secondary to the movie’s story, how much of the film was true?
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- Spotlight (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD)
- Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The findings of the investigation that inspired the major motion picture Spotlight
- Part 1 of 2: Church allowed abuse by priest for years
- Part 2 of 2: Geoghan preferred preying on poorer children
- Globe reporters tell their ‘Spotlight’ stories
- Reporting an Explosive Truth: The Boston Globe and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie begins at the Boston Police station, District 11, in 1976. The Assistant DA, a man named Burke, stops in and tells the officers at the station to keep the press out. In the back, a bishop is talking to a divorced mother with four children. The bishop assures the mother and the police that he’ll reassign Father John Geoghan, and this will never happen again. This is how we’re introduced to Father Geoghan as he’s being accused of molestation.
This wasn’t the first time Father Geoghan had been accused of molestation, and although we don’t know if it happened like it did in the movie, the gist is true. The woman was Joanne Mueller, and in the mid-70s, she accused Father Geoghan of molesting all four of her sons. But Joanne didn’t go to the police. She went to another priest named Paul E. Miceli. Of course, Miceli denied this.
After this introduction in the movie, we’re sent forward in time to 2001 and the offices of the Boston Globe.
The people that make up the Spotlight investigation team at the Globe are Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo in the film, Sacha Pfeiffer, who’s played by Rachel McAdams, and Matt Carroll, who’s played by Brian d’Arcy James. The Spotlight team is led by Walter Robinson, who is portrayed by Michael Keaton in the movie.
All of these are real people, on a very real Spotlight team. In fact, as of this writing the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe holds the honor of being the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist team in the United States, beginning with their first Pulitzer Prize in 1966.
In the movie, there’s a new editor who takes over at the Globe, as his predecessor retires. The new editor is named Marty Baron, who’s played by Liev Schreiber. In the movie, there’s a lot of fuss made over Marty.
This changing of the editors is true, as is the reason for making a big deal out of him. Marty Baron was the executive editor at the Miami Herald who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his team’s coverage of the raid to recover Elián González. If you don’t remember Elián, he was a Cuban boy who was the talk of the nation when he was the center of an immigration and custody dispute.
Right after Marty’s team won the Pulitzer Prize, Marty left and joined the Boston Globe on July 30th, 2001. So that’s why they made a big deal out of him joining the team.
Back in the movie, after Marty comes on board there’s a meeting to introduce him to the rest of the team. In this meeting, Liev Schreiber’s version of Marty Baron asks the Spotlight team if they’ve read Eileen McNamara’s column about Father Geoghan’s case.
Marty suggests they try filing a motion to try to lift the seal on the documents of the case. That’s basically suing the Catholic Church. In the heavily Catholic population of Boston, one of the people in the room point out it may not be taken well by the city. Marty isn’t concerned with this, and starts to build tension in the room as he tells them to press on.
Eileen’s article is real, and one you can find online today. It was published by the Boston Globe on July 22nd, 2001, so just before Marty came on board. When Marty was hired, he was coming from Miami, so he knew hardly anything about the Boston area. In an attempt to get to learn more, he had issues of the Boston Globe sent to him in Miami before making the move.
There’s a great article by Sarah Larson of the New Yorker that I’d recommend you check out to learn more about this. In the article, where Sarah asks Marty how it happened. Marty explained that in one of those copies he stumbled upon Eileen’s article in the Metro section. In it, Eileen questions how so many molestation charges could be covered up. It asks more questions than it has answers, though.
After reading the article, Marty was surprised he hadn’t heard of the case before. So just like the movie indicates, on Marty Baron’s first day, he proposed they dig deeper into the Church scandal.
If there’s something that wasn’t true about what the movie indicates, it’s the tension. The movie plays up the fact that Marty Baron was an outsider, from Miami, and seemingly taking on the city of Boston by stirring things up. In truth, and no doubt in part to Marty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ways, the Boston Globe team was enthusiastic about their new editor.
The Spotlight team in the movie is tasked with digging into the scandal. And they start full-force, as they divvy up the witnesses. Each member of the team starts interviewing the victims.
This happened, too. The Spotlight team worked very well together, so they wasted no time starting to get to the bottom of what was going on.
As they’re doing this in the movie, Mark Ruffalo’s version of Mike Rezendes mentions the Porter case in Fall River.
This case gets brought up from time to time in the movie, but they don’t really focus on it very much. The case was James Porter, and he became a Catholic priest in Fall River, Massachusetts when he was ordained in 1959.
Like John Geoghan, James Porter was accused of molesting a child early on. Porter was arrested in 1964 for molesting a 13-year-old, and served out 13 months in a mental institution.
When Porter was released, he picked up right where he left off. The Church let him go back to priesthood, as he had been deemed “cured”. He would bounce around parishes as he’d get accused of molesting children. He was eventually arrested and served 20 years in prison after being convicted on 28 counts of molesting children. However, he admitted to abusing 100 children over the span of three decades from the 1960s to the 1990s.
So in the movie, since Porter was arrested, and many details of the case were known by those who remembered it, the Spotlight team starts to see dots that could indicate a similar pattern. They’re focusing on John Geoghan, but as they start digging deeper, they realize there’s more. Geoghan isn’t the only priest who is molesting children and getting away with it.
The movie did a very good job of portraying this investigative journalism accurately. Just like in the movie, Mike, Sacha, Matt, and Walter worked tirelessly to connect dots. They scoured newspaper clippings from previous articles, documents, interviewed witnesses, and alleged victims. As they did, more dots appeared, and the whole picture started to take shape.
One of the creator of more dots, in the movie, is Mitchell Garabedian. He’s played by Stanley Tucci in the film, and in the movie Mitchell is portrayed as a one-man show. And yet, he’s the lawyer for dozens and dozens of victims in their accusations against the Catholic Church.
This portrayal of the one-man show is pretty accurate. The real Mitchell Garabedian was, and as of this writing still is, a lawyer who works on his own, and specializes in child abuse cases.
And at the time of the events in the movie, Mitchell represented most of the abuse victims.
Now in the movie, Stanley Tucci’s version of Mitchell keeps making mentions that the Church is watching him. He knows he’s a one-man band. And he’s up against the Catholic Church? He knows what he’s up against. He’s not deterred by this, but he’s also not trusting of Mark Ruffalo’s version of Mike Rezendes when they first meet.
In the movie, Mitchell’s trust of Mike only starts to grow after seeing Mike interview some of his clients. With Mitchell there to make sure things go well, he sees the authenticity in Mike. He’s just trying to get to the bottom of the story. That’s when Mitchell starts to open up to Mike.
This distrust is true. At first, Mitchell thought there was a chance Mike was either working for, or controlled by, the Catholic Church. And why not? Plenty of people were.
Or should that be, plenty of people are?
Remember, Mitchell is essentially one man going up against the Catholic Church. If he’s to have any hope of success, he’d need public support. Mike can give him that support. But he wasn’t one to jump to trusting anyone. And while he’s never said otherwise, it’s not too far-fetched to assume Mitchell was being harassed by the Catholic Church. The same sort of thing that happens any time a huge institution tries to get the little guy to be quiet.
It wasn’t until after a full day of interviewing some of Mitchell’s clients, with their consent, that he slowly started to trust Mike.
Another plot point in the movie comes after Mike’s meeting with Mitchell’s clients when the Spotlight team turns to a victim’s organization to perform more interviews.
This, too, happened. The organization’s name is SNAP. That’s not to be confused with the Massachusetts state government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also with the acronym SNAP. The organization the Spotlight team turned to was the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1989 and as of 2013 had 12,000 members in 56 countries.
Through this network, the Spotlight team was able to interview more victims. With the team poking around the SNAP network and the victim’s lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, it didn’t take long for the Church to start to take notice.
Back in the movie, Mark meets with Ben Bradlee, who’s played by John Slattery in the film, at a Boston Red Sox game. Mark gives Ben an update on where they are so far. They’ve identified another name to add to their growing list of abusive priests.
We haven’t talked about Ben yet, but he was an important part of the Boston Globe team.
The real Ben Bradlee, Jr., got the taste of journalism from his father, Ben Bradlee, Sr., who played a major role as the executive editor of The Washington Post exposing corruption in the United States during President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Ben, Jr., wasn’t technically a part of the Spotlight team, but he was the Assistant Managing Editor at the Boston Globe during in the early 2000s. Part of his responsibility was overseeing many of the investigations and projects at the Globe, and one of those he oversaw was the Spotlight team’s investigation.
At this point in the movie’s timeline, Michael Keaton’s version of Walter Robinson finds out that Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who’s played by Laurie Heineman, has agreed to a hearing on the release of the some documents.
That’s something we really haven’t touched on yet. It’s the one Marty Baron suggest they pursue early on, and it essentially involves the Boston Globe suing the Catholic Church to release documents about Cardinal Law, who’s played by Len Cariou in the film. This in the effort to determine if Cardinal Law was complicate in the cover up for the then-Father John Geoghan.
This is true. According to the original article released by the Boston Globe that inspired the movie, the Church had requested the documents in Father John Geoghan’s case be sealed to protect the confidentiality of the victims. That’s the case Eileen McNamara’s article was about in 2001.
But was it really to protect the confidentiality of the victims? Or was it to protect the Church?
In an attempt to get to the bottom of it, the Globe submitted a motion requesting the documents be released to the public. The Church fought this, again citing confidentiality of the victims.
While this lawsuit was going on in the movie, Marty Baron goes to visit Cardinal Law. According to the storyline in the film, Cardinal Law tries to convince Marty that the Church and the Globe need to work together. Marty isn’t impressed, and says newspapers work best when they work alone.
This meeting did take place, but it didn’t happen quite like it did in the movie. In Sarah Larson’s New Yorker article, Marty explained the conversation was mostly just pleasantries. Since Marty was new in the area, he was meeting people in the community and Cardinal Law was one of them.
Oh, and Catechism that Cardinal Law gave Marty in the movie? In truth, Cardinal Law handed it to Marty from his bookshelf. It wasn’t really gift-wrapped like in the movie.
But interestingly, what you see in the movie was the actual book. Apparently, Marty, who’s Jewish, decided he didn’t need a Catholic Catechism so he let the filmmakers keep it.
In the movie, there’s a really sad moment when one of the victims tells his story. It’s Patrick McSorley, who’s played by James LeBlanc in the movie.
It’s way too disturbing to discuss in detail here, but this retelling of how Patrick was molested by then-Father Geoghan is very accurate to how it’s laid out in the Boston Globe article. If you haven’t already, would highly recommend checking out the original articles from the Boston Globe that spawned the movie Spotlight.
Back in the movie’s timeline, another lawyer comes into the picture. It’s Eric MacLeish, who’s played by Billy Crudup in the film. According to the movie, Eric was a lawyer hired by the Catholic Church to help reach settlements on behalf of the victims.
And, according to Eric in the movie, those settlements never had documents like the case against Father John Geoghan because they were settled out of court. No court, no public records.
While there’s a lot of things we don’t know about the exact numbers, since there are no public records, one of the facts the real Spotlight team uncovered was that the Catholic archdiocese settled about 50 lawsuits against Father Geoghan alone. That doesn’t even count the settlements we don’t know about from any of the other priests who had been accused of sexual abuse.
A big inaccuracy in the movie occurs next when Pete Conley, who’s played by Paul Guilfoyle, meets with Marty Baron. According to the movie, this takes place at a charity event put on by the Catholic Church. Pete is portrayed as someone who represents Cardinal Law, and tries to get in on Marty’s good side by vouching for him at the party—Marty’s name wasn’t on the list to get in.
This isn’t real because Pete Conley isn’t a real person. He was made up as an amalgamation of the numerous people. While there were some big-name people who covered up for the priests, like Cardinal Law, Pete Conley was the filmmaker’s way of having a single person represent a bunch of people who interacted with the Spotlight team to try to get them to stop their investigation through some means or another.
In the movie, as the Spotlight team’s investigation keeps uncovering the dark corners of the Catholic Church, there’s a moment where a character the team simply calls Sipe phones in to talk to the team. We never see Sipe in the movie, but he’s voiced by Richard Jenkins.
Over the phone, Sipe claims to have treated many of the priests accused of sexual molestation. His estimation of the numbers are incredible—six percent of the priests in Boston. That’s about 90 priests he’s estimating are guilty of molestation.
The real story here is very similar to how the movie portrays things. The person named Sipe that called is A.W. Richard Sipe. I’m not sure if he prefers A.W. or just Richard, so I’ll just call him Richard. Richard, if you’re listening, feel free to reach out and let me know which you prefer!
According to the Boston Globe, Richard was a former priest himself, and after his days with the collar was a psychotherapist with an expertise in clergy sexual abuse. When a priest in the Boston area was charged with sexual abuse, Richard would treat them. While he legally couldn’t betray that trust, again, according to the Boston Globe, the reason Richard was willing to speak to the Spotlight team was because he didn’t like how the Catholic Church was dealing with priests who molested children.
Later in the movie, Eric MacLeish is upset at the Spotlight team because he claims to have already sent a list of names he’s helped settle for the Church. If the Boston Globe covered it up once before, why not again? After all, for all he knows, they’re in on keeping the status quo like the Church.
After this, according to the movie, Michael Keaton’s character, Walter Robinson, was in charge of the Metro division at the Globe in 1993, when Eric apparently sent in the list of priest’s names.
The true story for this part is really interesting. The truth is this wasn’t something the Spotlight team confronted Eric MacLeish about. And it wasn’t something they found out about during their investigation.
This came to light when the movie Spotlight was being made. One of the movie’s screenwriters, Josh Singer, was interviewing the real people that he was writing the movie about. One of those was the real Eric MacLeish.
It was in one of these interviews that Eric told Josh about sending in a list of names to the Globe. So it was the movie’s screenwriter who went back and found the 1993 story in the Boston Globe. When he did, Josh brought the story to Walter Robinson. He had no memory of it. According to Walter, he had just started the job two weeks before that story came out, so even though he was still new to everything it technically happened while he was the head of that division at the paper.
Back in the movie, Mark Ruffalo’s version of Mike Rezendes meets with Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian. They’re sitting on a bench, and Mitchell agrees to speak off the record. Then he goes on to explain that he attached 14 of the most critical pieces of evidence to a motion that he filed against the Church.
This part is true. Remember, the real Mitchell Garabedian is essentially one man going up against the Catholic Church. But he was a very smart man, and he did everything by the book. He knew the Church would be able to catch him on technicalities.
At this point in the Globe’s investigation, Mitchell was hoping that the Spotlight team would’ve found the public documents. But as amazing as the Spotlight team’s investigative capabilities were, they’re human. We learned of the 1993 story that slipped through the cracks until the movie was made. And so did the documents Mitchell attached to his case.
According to researchers at Columbia University, in August of 2001, Mitchell finally tipped off Mark about the documents. He wanted them to find it, but he didn’t want the Church to be able to get away with things through a legal technicality.
Once Mark got the tip, he set to work.
Then, just like in the movie, everyone’s lives changed on September 11th, 2001. Ben Bradlee tells Mark to go to Florida to investigate the flight training school the terrorists trained at.
As a quick little side note, the real Ben Bradlee, Jr., has a little cameo in the movie right here. It’s about 1:24 into the movie, and just after Cardinal Law is seen on TV offering a message of hope to reporters, the camera cuts back to the Boston Globe offices. John Slattery’s version of Ben is asking if Rezendes went to Florida yet. There’s a group of reporters around, and the man two people to the left of John Slattery, wearing a blue and white buttoned shirt, is the real Ben Bradlee, Jr.
This timing is true, and just like you would expect, the events of 9/11 took everyone’s focus for a time. And understandably.
But the Spotlight team had invested way too much time to just drop their story.
When they pick it back up in the movie, Walter Robinson, Ben Bradlee, and Marty Baron meet up to discuss a timetable for releasing the story. They want to gather a bit more evidence, and they decide to wait until after Christmas. This reasoning, according to the movie, is because after 9/11 they wanted to let people have Christmas—have some good tidings.
The specifics of this are different than the true story, but the gist is there. The Spotlight team was accustomed to getting all of their facts in a row before releasing a story. They didn’t do the daily news-type stories. They did the type of stories that would take months or years to investigate. This one in particular being against the Catholic Church, they wanted to make sure they got all their ducks in a row.
But they also didn’t want to hold onto it forever. With each day that passed, who knows how many others were suffering?
The movie ends when the story is published. After it starts getting delivered, Mark Ruffalo’s version of Mike Rezendes and Michael Keaton’s Walter Robinson make it back into the Boston Globe offices on the weekend to see if anyone is calling in about the article.
When they get there, they find the Spotlight team’s small office is staffed with extra people just to answer the phones. They’re ringing off the hook.
Although this specific incident is fictionalized for the film, the plotline they’re getting across is real. Just to give you an idea of the response the Spotlight team received on the article, during the course of the investigation there were about 35 people interviewed for the story.
After the story was published, 300 more reached out claiming to have been abused as children by the Catholic Church in Boston.
The movie ends with some text on the screen, giving some numbers to the story. An additional 600 stories published by Spotlight since those initial two stories. Almost 250 priests publicly accused of sexual abuse. An estimated 1,000 survivors.
After the initial reports, the Spotlight team continued to work on the this story for another year and a half. If you visit the Boston Globe’s website, you’ll find a treasure trove of stories that can give you an amazing insight into the cover-up.
Although I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have the resources to have access to the documentation or research that the filmmakers did to come up with these numbers, based on the accuracy of the rest of the film I have no reason to doubt them.
One of the text screens in the movie says Cardinal Law left Boston and was reassigned by the Catholic Church to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. That’s one of the highest ranking Roman Catholic churches, according to the movie.
This is true, too, but there’s a bit that the movie doesn’t mention.
After the public outcry that ensued following the release of the story in Boston, Cardinal Law was essentially forced to resign. He was caught red-handed covering up or simply ignoring child molestation by priests in the Boston archdiocese.
On December 13th, 2002, Pope John Paul II accepted Cardinal Law’s resignation. It was in May of 2004 that Pope John Paul II assigned him to a post in Rome. He wasn’t a Cardinal anymore, but instead he was appointed to an honorary position as the Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He held this position until November 21st, 2011, when he was replaced as Archpriest and subsequently retired at the age of 80.
As of this writing, he’s still alive and living at the Palazzo della Cancelleria, which is a Renaissance palace in Rome owned by the Catholic Church.
The final text on the screen before the credits roll in the movie is a long list of cities. There’s 207 cities total, from all around the world. These are the cities, according to the movie, where major abuse scandals have been uncovered.
Boston was just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, this is true.
According to the New Yorker, the Vatican claimed in 2014 to have defrocked 848 priests worldwide for sexual abuse.
In addition, 2,572 clerics had been “disciplined”. What sort of discipline? Unfortunately, we don’t know. And for a Catholic Church that claimed to have dealt with molestation before by simply reassigning priests to a new parish, there’s no wonder that many aren’t happy with the Church.
All of this started with Father John Geoghan. So what happened to him? Although the Church has claimed to have defrocked nearly a thousand priests as of 2014, John Geoghan was just one priest defrocked by the Church. In all, he was charged with sexual abuse of more than 130 boys over the course of three decades. He was defrocked in 1998, and sentenced to nine years in prison.
The Church settled with the victims for a sum of $10 million. Although we don’t know the exact number of victims that money went to, assuming it was the 130 boys we know he was charged with, that’d only be about $77,000 per person.
That’s what it cost for the Church to sweep it under the rug.
On August 23rd, 2003, John Geoghan was strangled and then stomped to death in prison by an inmate named Joseph Druce.
On February 23rd, 2004, Patrick McSorely died. He was one of the first victims to open up to the Spotlight team. Although there is controversy around the official cause of death, after being molested by John Geoghan on their way back from getting ice cream at the age of 12, Patrick struggled with drug addiction for the rest of his life.
He was 29 when he died of what many believe to be a drug overdose.