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Media and scandals in the Church

/ 01:55 AM February 18, 2016

Call it synchronicity. Last week, while I was handling a seminar-workshop on “Media and Scandals in the Church” at the Communication Foundation for Asia (attended by priests, religious and several lay people, with Archbishop Emeritus and canon lawyer Oscar Cruz as opening speaker), the movie “Spotlight” was showing in the United States and was about to be shown in Metro Manila.

I watched the movie three days ago. Catch it, please.

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“Spotlight” has already bagged more than 15 awards from various film and critics groups, including a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best screenplay a few days ago. I hope it also takes home an Oscar or two. The movie was directed by Tom McCarthy and written by Josh Singer and McCarthy.

Based on a true story, “Spotlight” is about sexual abuses committed by priests against minors in the Boston diocese but, more than that, it is also about the massive cover-up that a team of journalists uncovered. For while the victims and the abusers are at the heart of the story, the movie is really about how the Boston Globe’s investigative journalists (the Spotlight Team) exposed what had been deliberately hidden for 34 years.

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This is not about glamorous TV journalists, folks, but about intrepid print journalists who are best read than seen.

I was reminded of the movie “All the President’s Men,” which was about how reporters of the Washington Post blew the lid off the Watergate scandal that brought down a US president. The Boston Globe’s series of exposés led to the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law who had known about the abuses, and was later (gasp!) shunted off to Rome.

If I may get ahead of the story, the Boston Globe also had some breast-beating to do: Years earlier, the abuses were brought to its attention but the newspaper either ignored it or overlooked it. No less than a lawyer whom the Spotlight Team was pinning against the wall for his hush-hush arbitration with the victims (on behalf of the diocese) stunned the team when he pointed to their paper’s sin of omission. That was an OMG (Oh, my God!) moment for the team. And for me.

But the time had come. A new editor in chief saw a story-in-the-making in a small column piece in another paper and set the Spotlight Team in motion.  By the way, the series on the abuses and how they were deliberately covered up for decades came out in the Boston Globe in 2002. (You can still find it on the Internet.) It won for the Spotlight Team a Pulitzer Prize.

The investigative team was composed of reporters Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), editor Walter V. Robinson (Michael Keaton) and editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). The first part was written by Rezendes, the second part by Pfeiffer.

In its first salvo, the Boston Globe asked a most shocking question: “Why did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of Fr. John Geoghan’s reach?” Geoghan was the priest who had abused minors. Here’s a peek at that exposé:

“Since the mid-1990s, more than 130 people have come forward with horrific childhood tales about how former priest John J. Geoghan allegedly fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree through a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.

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“Almost always, his victims were grammar school boys. One was just 4 years old.

“Then came last July’s disclosure that Cardinal Bernard F. Law knew about Geoghan’s problems in 1984, Law’s first year in Boston, yet approved his transfer to St. Julia’s parish in Weston. Wilson D. Rogers Jr., the cardinal’s attorney, defended the move last summer, saying the archdiocese had medical assurances that each Geoghan reassignment was ‘appropriate and safe.’

“But one of Law’s bishops thought that the 1984 assignment of Geoghan to St. Julia’s was so risky, he wrote the cardinal a letter in protest. And for good reason, the Spotlight Team found: The archdiocese already had substantial evidence of Geoghan’s predatory sexual habits. That included his assertion in 1980 that his repeated abuse of seven boys in one extended family was not a ‘serious’ problem, according to an archdiocesan record …” Read on.

Although the movie does not dwell heavily on the lurid details of the sexual abuses, the victims and the villains have their moments in the movie. Let me say that, for me, the movie’s dramatic moments were about the legwork, the chase, how the journalists tracked down the victims and their families, villains, judges, lawyers, etc. and extracted information. But not to forget the paperwork, the research they did in finding “lost” public documents. They pored over old church directories in their newspaper archives and discovered a Pandora’s box of information—priests who kept getting transferred, shuttled from one assignment to another or were out of circulation, etc. More OMG moments. It was no longer only Geoghan. There were others. Where were they?

Speaking of harmless-looking directories, I always want to know if the Inquirer library has the latest copy of the thick and heavy Catholic Directory of the Philippines. (I have one of my own at home.)

As a journalist, I noticed details in the movie that nonjournalists may not. Although “Spotlight” is a post-2000 story, the members of the investigative team in the movie did not rely solely on tape recorders and high-tech gadgets (I didn’t see any); they always had notebooks and pens—yes, notebooks and pens. I thought, gee, like I always do! Let me say that audio clips are very useful, but there is something about later reading my own handwritten notes on paper. Will tell you why and about the magic of it some other time.

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Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com.

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