The story of how a Jew and an Armenian took down the Catholic church

“Spotlight” movie poster.

When the Boston Globe in 2002 started publishing its stories about the widespread child abuse in the Catholic church in Boston and elsewhere in the United States, and how the church had, for decades, systematically and villainously buried the issue without any regard to the victims and—moreover—to future victims, I was a journalist. Don’t get me wrong, I was nowhere close to the investigative minds of the Boston Globe or any other newspaper for that matter. I was just a simple online journalist at a national newspaper in a small European country. But as that simple online journalist, it was my job to report on this, and other news, to our readership, day in, day out.

First it was the Globe, then other newspapers followed. First it was the United States, then other countries followed. For an online journalist, this was months and years of translating and reporting on news on a subject no one really wanted to have happened—and the news just kept pouring in.

Most people—even most journalists, at least outside the U.S.—don’t even know who are Marty Baron, Ben Bradlee, Jr., “Robbie” Robinson, Mike Rezendes, etc. I knew. I knew back then, and when I was watching “Spotlight” yesterday, it was a nice realization that those people didn’t occur as total strangers to me—even though I have never had the honor of meeting any of them. But having read probably everything this team wrote on the Catholic church child abuse scandal, I felt like I could actually call these people my colleagues.

That is what “Spotlight” essentially is. It’s a nostalgia movie for all former journalists who, at the time the scandal erupted, worked as reporters, editors, or even editors-in-chief. It brings back sweet memories of working in a fast-paced news environment; the frustrations of not getting things right when you had the best intentions in mind; the eager thirst for information and the hard work we put in to get it from reluctant sources. It reminds us that we might have not been the useless hacks people often thought we were, and sometimes even made us feel like. It reaffirms every journalist’s belief that the responsibility we have (or had) to tell people the truth, only truth and nothing but the truth is the absolute obligation and nothing should ever distract us from it. And, it also reminds us that we’re still people and therefore not infallible.

The story of the movie is really simple. A new editor-in-chief takes over the Boston Globe and finds a news clip about a priest who had abused children. Believing it’s a far bigger issue (and mind you, not just a story, but an issue), he instructs the newspaper’s team of investigative reporters—the Spotlight team—to investigate it further. He suspects that the root of the problem doesn’t lie in only the fact that priests abuse children, but that the Catholic church systematically and viciously—and with the direct knowledge of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law—sweeps these cases under the rug, allowing the priests to be endlessly recycled between congregations where they continue molesting children, until they’re again recycled to another congregation.

What the Spotlight reporters uncover is history. They realize that everything the editor, Marty Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber), had suspected, was actually true, and even more widespread than just Boston, or just the U.S. For years after the Globe’s discovery, newspapers all over the world were writing about similar cases by the hundreds, if not thousands. And, most importantly, the work of the Boston Globe reporters forced the Catholic church to change its practices in recycling priests, and to pay the victims of those priests’ crimes substantial amounts in damages.

Another character in the movie, however, is a lawyer called Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci)—and that’s a name I had either forgotten or had never known. He was one of the early sources for Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a Globe reporter. Garabedian represented—and still continues to represent—some of the priests’ victims in their cases against the church. With his help, the Globe reporters discovered the extent of the abuse in the church and the fact without which the scandal wouldn’t have had even close to the effect it had—that the Cardinal and the rest of the church hierarchy had always known what was going on and did absolutely nothing.

The reporters of the Boston Globe Spotlight team in the movie.

The reporters of the Boston Globe Spotlight team in the movie.

Now I have no idea whether this conversation ever took place or was it just a dramatization, but in “Spotlight,” it was Garabedian himself who pointed out the fact that Marty Baron was Jewish and he himself was an Armenian—two outsiders of the Catholic church, and therefore it was much easier for them to actually bring the scandal to light and tell the world about it. That was again something I hadn’t known while covering how the scandal unfolded fourteen years ago—that the city of Boston was so tightly under the church’s control that for the city insiders, no matter how much they could’ve tried or how righteous they were, it was close to impossible to uncover and report on even smaller cases that hurt the church, let alone something that would send shockwaves through the church, its followers, and the entire world. And that wasn’t only because the church itself did everything it possibly and impossibly could to curb the flow of information, but because the city insiders of Boston couldn’t even consider starting a war with the Catholic church—the church they had been born into.

So “Spotlight” is a story of how an Armenian lawyer and a Jewish journalist did what the locals couldn’t. They brought down the Catholic church and uncovered a scandal that is still remembered as one of the most outrageous events in the history of any religion. They helped the local journalists realize that no matter how hard it would be to bring down the Catholic system and give justice to the thousands of victims, it can be done and has to be done.

And done it was.

Spotlight, 10/10

(Cross-posted on Medium.com)

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