ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Reporters Behind New “Spotlight” Movie Tell How They Exposed Priest Abuse

After a Boston priest was convicted of sexually abusing more than 100 children, a team of Boston Globe reporters published an investigation that shocked the city. The Globe’s investigative unit, known as the “Spotlight” team, revealed in 2002 that Catholic Church leaders knew about child abuse by dozens of priests for decades and covered it up, reassigning the abusers to new parishes while paying millions in settlements to a trail of victims. The new film Spotlight, in theaters on Nov. 6, chronicles the Pulitzer-winning investigation that exposed the scandal.

On this week’s podcast, we’re joined by four key players in the Globe’s investigation: reporters Walter “Robby” Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes, and deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. In a conversation with ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg, they take us inside their experience of reporting this story nearly 15 years ago and what it felt like seeing it depicted in a movie that sticks closely to the actual events.

Edwin Torres

Highlights from their conversation:

On making the drudgery of investigative journalism exciting for film

Sacha Pfeiffer: We created what we call our database of “bad priests,” where we tracked over a course of 20 years various priests and where they were assigned. If they were accused of abuse, they were yanked out and put on what’s called "sick leave," which is a euphemism for sexual abuse. This was a tedious, monotonous three-plus weeks of losing our eyesight as we went through small type and the equivalent of an Archdiocesan phonebook. But the movie makes it look quite riveting. They’re good at showing the reality of the work but also dramatizing it for film. (1:34)

On being studied and interviewed by the actors who portrayed them

Michael Rezendes: Mark Ruffalo came to my house, sat down in the living room, opened a notebook, pulled out his pen, turned on his iPhone and started asking me not how I did my job... [but] why I did my job, why I’m interested in investigative reporting, and why essentially have I committed my life to this endeavor. And I thought, “Gee, this is really pretty intrusive.” But then I realized how many times I’ve done this to other people and relaxed and just really enjoyed watching him work. (6:03)

On the reaction to the story in Boston

Robby Robinson: There was no “blame the messenger” problem [as we had anticipated]. In fact, instead of getting calls from people angry at us, the very first morning...we started to get wave after wave of calls from victims of abuse who, in many cases, were talking about it for the very first time ever since it had happened to them years and years earlier. They had never told members of their family. We talked to almost 300 victims in the first couple of months after the story broke, and many of them named priests – then we got their personal records as well. (10:24)

On takeaways from the movie

Ben Bradlee Jr: I think we all hope that one of the effects of the movie will be to have editors around the country reassess the importance of investigative reporting, because it really can make a difference in our democracy. And yet in the Internet era newspapers are obviously struggling and have had to lay off staff. Editors are facing the realities of trying to find enough bodies to merely put out the paper, never mind what is perceived as the luxury of investigative reporting. (13:30)

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher, and read the 2002 Boston Globe “Spotlight” report Church allowed abuse by priest for years.

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