UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY, the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland could be felt in every town across the country.
The Church was respected, and somewhat feared, with the local priest being one of the most powerful people in the community who was never to be questioned.
After countless reports and tribunals into decades of systemic abuse within the Church, Irish people know all too well the devastating aftermath that relationship has had on communities.
It is something small Irish towns and villages have in common with the city of Boston.
The new award-winning Hollywood movie, Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and Rachel McAdams, focuses on the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation carried out by the Boston Globe newspaper into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child-molesting priests.
Due for release in Ireland at the end of the month, the movie shines a light on an issue all too familiar.
In 2001, a team of journalists investigated allegations against John Geoghan, a priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys.
Editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) go about interviewing victims and sifting through countless documents to uncover the truth about what happened in the Diocese.
The movie, which has been nominated for a number of Golden Globes and tipped for Oscar glory, gives an insight into how the newspaper went about exposing the cover-up of child abuse.
Boston Globe investigation
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, Spotlight’s editor at the time (who is played by Michael Keaton) said the movie is very accurate to the events that took place in the Boston Globe.
The movie depicts how the new Editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, asks the team to investigate the Church. Their first step is to sue the Catholic Church for court-sealed documents in an ongoing case.
Robinson told TheJournal.ie that he and his team had no idea what they were embarking on.
We really didn’t have any idea how big it would be. Marty saw something that only a fresh pair of eyes could see. We laugh about it now but I say to Marty, ‘We were terrified of a new boss, we just sought out to call everyone who might know about this issue.’ This Father Geoghan was just the tip of the iceberg.
He said the movie depicts journalists in a certain way.
It doesn’t portray them as heroic figures, reporters generally stumble around in the dark. We make mistakes, we miss things.
The initial 12 to 15 abusive priests they uncovered grew to more than 250 priests in the Boston area.
We were taken aback and quite frankly, horrified. We are cognisant in any investigation we do that we have to be absolutely right. We knew the stakes were much higher here.
Robinson said, much like in Ireland, the Church was in a very important and powerful position in the Boston community at the time. He said Keaton is essentially playing two characters in the movie.
Me, of course, but also the kind of generation of Globe reporters who were deferential to the Church.
He said the treatment afforded to the Church ”prevented them from seeing those things that should have been seen”.
Every year an interview is carried out with the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. Robinson said in the past there was always a sort of “tip-toeing around the newsroom”.
No one ever said ‘you don’t want to write anything to offend him’. This goes back some years but it was kind of implicitly understood, ‘This is the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, best be careful.’
‘This is not just Boston’
Robinson said he was also surprised at audiences’ reaction at the end of the movie when the list of countries and states that have been impacted by the Church’s abuse of children are shown.
This is a sophisticated audience who have come to see this movie, but I was amazed to see how shocked people were.
One of the lines in the movie that hits home, particularly in other countries impacted, such as Ireland is:
This is not just Boston, it’s the whole country, the whole world.
The emotive scene with Mark Ruffalo’s character pressing on Robinson to publish what the newspaper has shows the impact the story had on them, not just as reporters, but as people.
Robinson holds off on going to press until they can pin evidence on the entire system, rather than a few priests.
Robison said one of the most poignant scenes is when one survivor, Patrick McSorley, describes how he was abused by a priest. He describes how he had an ice-cream in his hand, that he allowed to just melt down his arm as the abuse was taking place.
“They had thought about doing a flashback scene showing a kid with ice-cream melting down his arm, but they decided the words were more than sufficient,” said Robinson.
He said he hoped the movie would shine the spotlight back on some of these issues, commending the way the movie tells the story of the survivors through the word of the Boston Globe reporters.
Those of us that labour in print journalism believe in the primacy of the printed word and the impact it can have on peoples’ lives.
He said he believes the film can “affect the public’s consciousness in a way the printed word cannot”.
Spotlight makes for shocking viewing, with one question coming to mind over and over. How could this have been allowed happen?
An Irish journalist was once asking the same question. Mary Raftery, best known for producing documentaries States of Fear and Cardinal Secrets, was instrumental in bringing about the State investigations into child abuse in institutions and the Catholic Church.
The former, which aired in April and May 1999, detailed the abuse suffered by children in reformatory and industrial schools between the 1930s and 1970s.
In 2002, Cardinal Secrets exposed cover-ups of clerical child abuse in Dublin.
Two reports attempted to get to the truth – the Murphy and Ryan reports.
The Ryan report in particular found that rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages.
Last year, the former Archbiship of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Sean Brady told the Historical Abuse Inquiry (HIA) in Banbridge:
There was a shroud of secrecy and confidentiality with a view not to destroying the good name of the Church.
One would like to think that all of this is in the past, and the movie might lead people to think once the Church were caught out, all of this stopped.
However, not all of the recommendations from the reports and tribunals have been introduced.
Just last month, it emerged that some recommendations made in the Ryan report have yet to be implemented.
The report was published in May 2009 but Children’s Minister James Reilly revealed that five recommendations have not been implemented due to “resource implications and the challenging economic environment”.
In June of last year, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said child abuse victims were still coming forward and that he still has concerns about safeguarding as it was “not evenly embedded across the Church”.
Under Pope Francis the Vatican has made some unprecedented moves to tackle child abuse legacies. Last June, it was announced that a tribunal and audit of bishops is to be set up to judge bishops accused of covering up or not preventing sexual abuse of children.
The abuse council is headed by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston. He was sent to the Vatican in 2003 to succeed Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the man at the centre of the Spotlight investigation.
He was forced to step down in disgrace in 2002 after the newspaper disclosed he had shunted abusive priests from parish to parish.
It’s reported that at least 12 Irish priests could come before the tribunal.
The need for investigative reporting
Speaking about the importance of investigative journalism of the kind carried out by his team, Robinson said “very often you can’t depend upon the government, as the perpetrator of crimes can be the government itself, at least in ignoring victimised populations”.
He said if it wasn’t for the work of these types of reporters, their stories might never be made public.
“I think they [the audience] get a new understanding of the importance of good reporting. Most people don’t understand that a newspaper with half as many reporters diminishes the effect democracy has on lives. If they don’t know what is going on, how can they make informed decisions?”