A feisty reporter’s book corrects for the Hollywood bias of Spotlight

A new film on the sex abuse crisis fails to tell the bigger story, writes Phil Lawler

Phil Lawler

In the new film Spotlight, the investigative reporters of the Boston Globe are portrayed as brave underdogs who dared to confront the overwhelming power of the Boston archdiocese, and thus exposed the sex-abuse scandal. It might make for a good movie but that story line is bunk.

The Globe did do the Catholic Church an enormous favour with the “Spotlight” series that opened in January 2002, revealing how the archdiocese had protected a predatory priest, the late John Geoghan, allowing him to continue molesting children for years. 

That Globe story — and the dozens of similar stories that came tumbling out in that “long Lent” of 2002 — revealed a cancer within the Catholic clergy. The diagnosis of cancer is never welcome, but if an accurate diagnosis leads to proper treatment, it can be a blessing.


So give the Globe credit for some solid investigative journalism. But do not pretend, for the sake of the plot line, that the Globe was reluctant to do battle with the Catholic Church, or that it required a special sort of courage to take on the archdiocese. Quite the contrary. 

For years, the Globe had been the most virulently anti-Catholic major newspaper in the country. And by the early years of the 21st Century, when this drama opened, the Globe had achieved an unquestioned dominance as the single most powerful institution in the public life of Greater Boston: far more powerful than the Church. (If you doubt me, make a list of the political candidates who won Massachusetts elections in the 1990s, and ask yourself whether the views of those candidates more closely reflected the teachings of the Catholic Church or the editorial directives of the Boston Globe.) This was not a case of David vs. Goliath; or if it was, Goliath won.

As an antidote to Hollywood fantasies that could make Spotlight misleading, I recommend Sins of the Press, a little book self-published by an investigative reporter who really is an underdog, David Pierre.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I do not always agree with Mr Pierre. In his determination to demonstrate the bias of the Globe he sometimes fails to give credit where credit is due. In his zeal to protect the Church from unjust criticism he sometimes defends the indefensible. Still the defects of his approach serve as a counterbalance to the politically-correct approach of the Globe and the fawning early reviews of Spotlight.

In his treatment of the film, for example, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni takes the Globe-as-underdog story for granted, and uses it as a jumping-off point for an attack on religious institutions in general. “In more places than not, they get special accommodation and the benefit of the doubt,” Mr Bruni writes. “There’s a reluctance to besmirch them, an unwillingness to cross them.” Well, Mr Bruni doesn’t show that reluctance, does he? Nor did the Globe.

In Sins of the Press, Mr Pierre recounts the long history of anti-Catholic bias at the Globe, which has been documented by several other writers. He goes on to point out that while pounding out headline stories about sexual abuse in the Church, the Globe ignored — and still ignores — the much more extensive evidence of sexual abuse in other institutions, such as the public-school system. The Globe chose not to challenge the administrators of the public-school system — who were, not coincidentally, their intellectual and political allies.

Similarly, in their righteous anger over the failure of Catholic bishops to pull abusive priests out of ministry, the Globe gave short shrift to one important reason why these priests were given new pastoral assignments. The bishops were often following the advice of psychiatrists — who had, and, incredibly, still have – the confidence of the secular press. Mr Pierre asks:

“Why should Cardinal Law be bludgeoned in the media for following the advice of professional psychologists decades ago but current-day Church leaders (like Law’s successor, Cardinal Sean O’Malley) be praised for adhering to the instructions from the very same field of psychologists today?”

Moreover, the outrage that the Spotlight team expressed (rightly) about priests’ relationships with younger boys was not previously much in evidence in the pages of the Globe. 

The paper’s “Ask Beth” advice columnist had given sympathetic advice to adolescents who wrote about their flings with adults, not bothering to mention that a crime was involved. The most notorious of Boston’s predator-clerics, Paul Shanley, earned favourable coverage earlier when he was seen as an unconventional “street priest”. The Globe gave its editorial endorsement to Congressman Gerry Studds in his bid for re-election after he was censured by the House of Representatives for his affair with a teenage page.

Oh, and one more thing: The Globe did not break the story about the archdiocesan coddling of John Geoghan. The Boston Phoenix, a weekly alternative paper (you know, an underdog?) had that story nearly a year before the Spotlight series ran.

Again, I do not mean to minimise the importance of the Globe’s investigative series. Nor do I doubt that Spotlight will be an interesting movie; I plan to see it myself. But if you want a balanced view of the drama that played out in Boston, see Mr Pierre’s book for “the rest of the story”.

If you’re really looking more – for the full story about the crisis that exploded in Boston, let me cast humility aside and recommend what the late Fr Richard Neuhaus called “the best book-length treatment of the sex abuse crisis, its origins and larger implications, published to date”— The Faithful Departed.