As anyone who has watched the Oscar-winning movie will know, Spotlight is based on the chilling true story of the systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church, but just how did the original events really unfold?
Below is a comprehensive account of just what was going on in the real Spotlight office back in 2001, the reporters who valiantly battled the church, and the victims who bravely fought for justice.
The Real-Life Spotlight Story
Below is a brief breakdown of the real-life events that inspired (and are often depicted in) the movie and the chain of occurrences that caused the Spotlight reporters to pursue the corrupt Catholic church with such dogged determination.
- Reporter Eileen McNamara wrote a column about lawsuits pertaining to a priest who was accused of sexually abusing children within the Boston Diocese. New editor Marty Baron noticed the story and insisted on digging deeper after it was discovered that the judge had sealed the court records to prevent the personnel records of the priest from going public.
- A suspicious Baron became determined to uncover exactly what was written in the hidden documents that the church was hell-bent on hiding.
- Lawyers at The Globe office give the Spotlight team a 50:50 chance of succeeding in their efforts to uncover pedophile priest John Geoghan's records and they decide it is the right thing to do to proceed with the case.
- Victim Phil Saviano sends The Globe his account of the Catholic church sweeping sexual abuse by the clergy under the rug. He previously sent the information to them five years earlier, but at the time The Globe chose not to pursue the case.
Watch the scene where Phil Saviano presents his evidence in Spotlight:
- Globe reporters approach victims to hear their side of the story after being given their contact details by a reluctant lawyer named Garabedian who had represented multiple victims.
- The Boston Globe uncovers that fact that the archdiocese had settled around 50 lawsuits against John Geoghan between 1997 and 2002.
- The Spotlight team searches the parish records and discovers that "sick leave" had been used as an official designation for priests who had been moved to a new parish following abuse allegations.
- Through interviewing victims and reading thousands of pages of parish records, the Spotlight team realizes that 87 priests in the area had been accused of sexually abusing children.
- Baron instructs the team to aim for the top level of the Catholic church. He wants the systematic cover-up to be the main focus of the investigation.
- Garabedian tells the Spotlight team that 14 of the most damning documents against the church are already public, but they had been removed from the courthouse. He was hoping that a journalist would dig this fact up organically as he feared retribution from the powerful church leaders but felt compelled to eventually give reporters a tip.
- A letter from Bishop John D'Arcy to Cardinal Law, written in 1984 was uncovered. The damning document proved that Law knew about Geoghan's abuse of young boys.
- Judge Constance M. Sweeney orders that the hidden documents The Globe has been seeking to bring into the open be made public.
- The church tries and fails to block the motion to make the documents public, arguing that the inner workings of the church must remain secret.
- The Spotlight team use the documents that Garabedian helped them uncover to write a comprehensive account of the huge coverup of sexual abuse within the church.
- It is eventually uncovered that 247 Boston based priests have been accused of sexually abusing children. The Spotlight team worked solidly on the case for a year and a half.
How True Was The Movie To The Real Story?
If this sounds remarkably similar to the movie, that's because it is. While many on screen adaptions of true stories sensationalize the subject matter in an attempt to keep viewers hooked, Spotlight is remarkably true to real-life events and, according to Information is Beautiful, 78.9% of the scenes in the movie actually took place.
Only minor changes were made to help condense the complicated narrative and network of figures within the church. For example, Conley (the representative for the Catholic Church seeking to bury the story) was not a real person, rather an amalgamation of the people involved with coving up for the abusive priests.
Director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal that he worked closely with the real Boston Globe reporters to do their story justice, he explained:
"We would interview each of them about the same moments, to triangulate what happened, 10 or 11 years after the investigation," said director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy. "Put it sometimes in their words, or our words, or a combination. ... These reporters and editors read almost every draft we threw at them"
The Real Life Reporters
The actors who bought Spotlight to life did some remarkable work shadowing and observing the real journalists and questioning them about even the most mundane details of their lives, right down to how long they let their nails grow and what size Post-it notes they used to use in 2001. Below, the reporters explain what it was like to be on the case and experience being mimicked by the stars.
Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer was a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight team for five years and worked extensively on the church sexual abuse cover up, just as it was portrayed in the movie. Pfeiffer still works as a reporter covering wealth, nonprofits, and philanthropy.
Pfeiffer was initially afraid that the movie would sensationalize events, but she later praised the production for staying so true to the story, she explained:
"I was definitely nervous when this idea of a movie first got floated, [The script] followed what really happened. There is very little license in terms of changing things that happened along the way. So, I think they ultimately created a really real-life, authentic, true-to-history story, and I feel grateful for that."
Watch Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer in action in the scene below:
When interviewed about what working with Rachel McAdams was like, Pfeiffer marveled over the 37-year-old actor's attention to detail as she dissected every aspect of the reporter's life to step into her shoes, she explained:
"Rachel has asked me how long I kept my fingernails. What size Post-it Notes I preferred. Whether I bought lunch at the Globe cafeteria or brought food from home. Did my husband and I ever cook together? (Yup, he’s a character in the movie, too.) What endearments did we use? Was there ever a time, while writing about priests who molested children, when I broke down? I’ve gotten used to texts from her arriving out of the blue: “Hey Sacha, random question: Do you remember what kind of shoes you wore around the office? (I know you had your trainers for your walks?) Did they usually have a heel or flat?”
Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes
Michael Rezendes was a senior Spotlight reporter who worked for the team at The Globe for over 10 years. He still works as an investigative journalist and his most recent work was a detailed expose on the sometimes lethal conditions at a state prison for mental health patients, which led to reforms and criminal indictments.
Rezendes worked closely with Ruffalo on the role and was astonished to the actor's dedication to his work and his ability to pick up on even the most minute mannerisms, he explained:
"At first, watching Mark re-enact five months of my life was like looking into a funhouse mirror, as I slipped into a summer evening at Fenway Park more than a dozen years ago. There he was – or I was – with my short-cropped hair, blue button-down shirt, and black leather jacket, exactly as I would have appeared at a Red Sox game after work.
But it was more than the wardrobe. After the fifth or sixth take of Mark taking guff from an older reporter and an editor, Mark introduced an odd, closed-mouth chuckle that I didn’t even know I used but which former Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer insisted was eerily accurate."
Check out Ruffalo's Oscar-nominated performance below:
Ruffalo was drawn to the role thanks to his own experience in the Catholic church, he told People Magazine that:
"I grew up Catholic and the hypocrisy of it and the dogma of it had chilled my relationship with it very early on. Even as a boy, I could feel it. There was a cruelty in the way the nuns treated us. It just didn't jibe with the teachings of Christ that were being taught, you know?"
He has also revealed that he has friends who were victims of sexual abuse within the church.
Michael Keaton as Walter 'Robby' Robinson
Walter V. Robinson is now the Globe’s Editor At Large and has been at the Globe as a reporter and editor since 1972. He has reported from 33 countries and was part of the Spotlight team for seven years.
Robinson has described Keaton as his doppelgänger (despite his initial skepticism) and praised the acclaimed actor's observational talents, he explained:
"When art imitates life, Michael is a Vermeer among actors. He sounds eerily like me. He has expropriated my Boston accent, the one that comes and goes — whenevah. “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy shouts, “Action,’’ and his voice dips an octave to match my base. My facial expressions, hand gestures, piercing look, arched eyebrow? They’re all his now. The way I sometimes — though not often, really — ask questions while lowering my voice rather than raising it? That’s now as much his modus operandi as mine. My persona has been hijacked. If Michael Keaton robbed a bank, the police would quickly have me in handcuffs."
The sexual abuse scandal in Boston was largely brought into the public eye thanks to the efforts of determined survivor Phil Saviano.
Saviano was sexually abused by by the Worcester, MA Diocese priest David Holley and he broke his silence in 1992 in an attempt to prosecute the man who stole his childhood and claim justice. He became the first known Massachusetts abuse victim to settle a case with no restrictions on speaking freely.
Saviano went on to form a new chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) that was instrumental in aiding the Spotlight case and educating reporters on the patterns of clergy abuse.
After the story broke, many more victims came forward with their own chilling tales of abuse, Walter Robinson said:
"We received calls just in the Boston archdiocese from over 300 victims in just a month or two."
He noted that the victims were mainly adults who were previously afraid to come forward because they were convinced they would not be believed.
Watch the scene in which the Spotlight team is flooded with calls:
The Predatory Priests
Church records revealed that many of the priests who were accused of sexually abusing children were repeat offenders who were sent away from their parishes for brief periods of psychological evaluation before returning or being relocated. They often abused again.
Although many priests were implicated in child abuse, the four biggest offenders are listed below:
John Geoghan was defrocked by the Catholic church after his involvement in child abuse became public. He allegedly preyed on young boys in multiple Boston parishes for decades after being repeatedly relocated by the church in an attempt to hide his crimes. He is currently serving nine to 10 years in prison.
Geoghan preferred to prey on children from poor families because he believed they were more naturally affectionate and trusting, according to court records, Geoghan once said:
"The children were just so affectionate, I got caught up in their acts of affection. Children from middle class families never acted like that toward me, so I never got confused"
Paul R. Shanley
Shanley ran a “street ministry” in Boston in the '60s and ‘70s. He allegedly took advantage of the often troubled boys and teens who who came to him seeking guidance. According to lawyer Carmen Durso, he created the ministry exclusively to abuse youths, he said:
"Essentially what Shanley did was to go out and create his own pool of victims in such a way he wouldn’t have to worry about parents’ catching on to what he was doing. He sets up this ministry with access to screwed-up kids no one cares about and access to kids who thought they were gay. When they thought there was no one else to talk to, he was there. It must have been pedophile paradise."
He was convicted of raping four boys at a Newton parish and is currently serving 12 to 15 years in prison. There is evidence that the church knew of his "attraction to adolescents" through confession. He also told church leaders he had had nine sexual encounters, including four with boys, and no action was taken against him.
Rev. Joseph Birmingham
Birmingham died in 1989 and therefore escaped justice. Birmingham allegedly groomed and abused at least 50 boys over a his 29-year-long career. Archdiocesan officials repeatedly ignored the numerous allegations against him.
According to victims, Birmingham lured them with the promise of sweets and ice cream before abusing them in his car, a victim named Bernie McDaid spoke out to The Boston Globe and said:
"At first, the car trips were fun. But then a pattern developed. The last boy out of the car would get fondled and rubbed and assaulted, and Father B. would ask, `Does that feel good? Don't you think you might like boys?' And you'd say, `No, Father. I like girls, Father."
Rev. Ronald H. Paquin
Paquin is the only priest who has admitted his guilt in a criminal case. He was jailed for his crimes but was released in 2015 because, despite his prolific abuse of 14 boys, he was not considered sexually dangerous.
There is evidence that the church had known about multiple allegations of abuse against Paquin since the '80s but continued to allow him to practice and claim more victims.
According to victims, Paquin would ply them with alcohol and gifts before abusing them on overnight trips or in his bedroom in the parish. Paquin also crashed a car while allegedly driving drunk and killed a teenage boy.