Spotlight True Story: The Movie's Real Boston Scandal Explained

Spotlight Movie True Story

Spotlight tackled a very difficult subject matter and, overall, told the true story accurately, though the film did make some changes to real-life events. Directed by Todd McCarthy from a script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight is about the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that exposed the widespread systemic sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston. Spotlight won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Spotlight begins with Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becoming the Boston Globe's new executive editor. Baron urges the paper's Spotlight team to look into a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who says that Cardinal Bernard F. Law (Len Cariou), the Archbishop of Boston, knew that a priest named John Geoghan was sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop him. Wary of the power the Catholic Church has in Boston, the team, consisting of Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'arcy James) discover that the scandal goes far beyond Father Geoghan: they find as many as 13 priests guilty of the same crimes in and around Boston. The reporters later learn through Richard Sipe, a former priest who has spent decades studying pedophile priests, that 6% of priests are guilty of sexual abuse, which in Boston's population amounted to almost 90 priests - crimes the Catholic Church not only knew about but covered up for decades. The Spotlight team writes and publishes their expose in January 2002, which led to Cardinal Law's resignation in December 2002, though he was later promoted to Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

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Spotlight only depicts the reporters' investigations from summer 2001 to the publication of their story on January 6, 2002. In real-life, the Spotlight team published nearly 600 articles about the scandal and earned the Boston Globe the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. At the end of the original article titled "Church Allowed Abuse By Priest For Years" was a link to the documents proving Cardinal Law knew about the priests and did nothing along with a phone number for victims and survivors to come forward and tell their stories to the Spotlight team. In the weeks afterward, the reporters received calls from over 300 victims, all of whom were adults who suffered abuse years before. Yet, while the resignation of Cardinal Law was the direct result of the Spotlight team's reporting, Law was actually promoted and the Church didn't address the actual scandal the reporters exposed for many years.

Certain events in Spotlight were depicted to happen before they did in real-life. In the film, Sacha Pfeiffer interviews an ex-priest named Ronald H. Paquin and is shocked when he freely admits to having molested young boys, making a point to note that he "received no gratification" from his crimes. In reality, it was during a mix of interviews which conducted months after the ending of the film by Pfeiffer and another reporter, Steve Kurkjian (Gene Amoroso), who had rejoined the Spotlight team, where Father Paquin made his startling confession. While Pfeiffer did write several follow-up reports on Paquin, the priest didn't outright blurt out his crimes the way he does in the film.

Despite its awards and accolades, Spotlight and its filmmakers received criticism as well. The New York Times published an article in which The Media Report's David F. Pierre Jr. accused the film of being a "misrepresentation of how the Church dealt with sexual abuse cases". Meanwhile, Jack Dunn, the director of public affairs at Boston College High School, was incensed that Spotlight portrayed him as indifferent to the sex abuse scandal and his attorneys accused the filmmakers of defamation. As part of the settlement, Open Road Pictures acknowledged that Dunn's dialogue in the film misrepresented him and that Dunn "was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up".

The Catholic Church didn't discourage audiences from seeing Spotlight. Rather, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who succeeded Cardinal Law in 2003, said that the movie depicts "a very painful time" but it allows the church "to deal with what was shameful and hidden". As a result of Spotlight, the Church eventually called "a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for participating in the cover-up" in the summer of 2015. As for Cardinal Law, he died in Rome in December 2017 at the age of 86.

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