Shining a ‘Spotlight’ on Hollywood Duplicity and Bias

Portrayed as a villain in Spotlight, the new film describing the clergy abuse scandal, Jack Dunn, the media spokesman for Boston College and trustee for Boston College High School, has hired a lawyer to demand that the scene portraying him as a cold and callous bureaucrat—caring nothing for victims—be stricken from the film. The scene Dunn wants stricken portrays him minimizing the harm to seven sexual assault victims at Boston College High School. Dunn claims that the film implies he was complicit in the cover-up of abusive priests, and has resulted in damage to his reputation and family. Telling a reporter for the Boston Globe that he is now “emotionally and physically wrecked” by the false characterization of him in the film, Dunn is demanding that the scene be removed and the producers admit the scene was a fabrication done for dramatic effect.

“The things they have me saying in the movie, I never said,” Dunn told the Boston Globe. The film depicts Dunn as indifferent to the fact that gay priests sexually assaulted seven male students at the high school over an 8-year period. “The way they have me saying those things, like I didn’t care about the victims, that I tried to make the story go away… The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims… They manufactured dialogue because they needed a villain and they chose apparently to make me a villain.”

In an interview for CBS local news, Dunn tearfully recalled how his own high-school age son defended his father when the son’s class from Boston College High School went to see the film: “As boys do, they kind of looked around and my son stood up and said ‘I need you to know my father’s a very good man.’” Dunn was devastated that his son had to defend him for “doing the right thing on behalf of people that I love on behalf of the truth.”

Dunn is not the only individual who is claiming to be unfairly portrayed in Spotlight. According to the Boston Herald, there are others now who are demanding apologies and cuts in the movie that has damaged their reputations: “Boston College public affairs director Jack Dunn, former Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, former Globe publisher Richard Gilman, and victim lawyer Eric MacLeish all say their actions were misrepresented in a way that casts them in a negative light, apparently in an effort to add drama to the film.”

According to the Herald, Kurkjian is mentioned in the film as being dismissive of a key tipster in the abuse scandal but Kurkjian maintains that he never spoke poorly of the tipster to his editors. He is demanding an apology from the director and the screenwriter. Globe editor Richard Gilman claims that Spotlight has him voicing reservations he never had about how the reporting might affect the Globe’s bottom line. In an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, Gilman alleges that the movie took great liberties with the truth by “dramatizing the risks to the Globe of taking on the Church.”

Gilman claims that Cardinal Bernard Law never intimidated the Globe:

His bombast did not cow the newsroom. Quite intentionally there was no internal discussion whatsoever of potential consequences. So it is to my extreme dismay that I’m shown on the screen giving voice to one such business concern—exactly the type of thing I had purposely avoided in the few interactions about the investigation… Words are put in people’s mouths. Certain scenes, notably a dramatic showdown that two members of the Spotlight team have with an attorney who represents victims, never occurred. Some scenes didn’t happen in the time period of the movie. Other scenes are composites. Multiple sources are combined into one person…Contrary to what you see on the screen, it was Kurkjian not Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer who later cajoled an errant priest into confessing the sins of his past.

Duplicity Drives the Narrative of Spotlight
The truth is that there is very little that is true in Spotlight. Yet much of the media has lauded the film. Some, like New York Times contributor Frank Bruni, have used the film as a way to attack the “privileged status” of all religious institutions. Suggesting that Spotlight illuminates the false claims of a “War on Religion,” Bruni argues that while “It’s fashionable among some conservatives to rail that there’s insufficient respect for religion,” Spotlight demonstrates that claim is “bunk.” For Bruni, “In more places and instances than not, they get special accommodation and the benefit of the doubt. Because they talk of God, they’re assumed to be good.” Far from being persecuted, Bruni claims the Church has been coddled, benefiting from the American way of giving religion a free pass, and excusing religious institutions not just from taxes, but from rules that apply to other organizations. Never mentioning that the majority of the cases “exposed” by the Spotlight team of investigative journalists were decades old—prosecuted during the 1970s and 80s, a time when the Church was already declining in influence in Boston—Bruni fails to acknowledge that far from being courageous reporters challenging the overwhelming power of the Boston archdiocese, the reality is that by 2002 the Globe was the most powerful institution in Boston—much more influential than the Church.

While Boston was still considered a Catholic city because of the large numbers of self-identified Catholics living there, the fact is that by 2002, most Catholics in the Boston area were not practicing the faith in any meaningful way. Mass attendance had plummeted, and the Church had lost most of its influence in the city. Having moved on from the faith of their predominantly Irish families, many members of this new generation of Catholics were embarrassed by Catholic culture and teachings—and did everything they could to break free of it. Several of them worked at the Globe. Writers like Eileen McNamara, the op-ed writer who is mistakenly credited with “breaking” the story of the clergy abuse cover-up in the opening scenes of Spotlight, has demonstrated hostility toward the Church for decades. In his recent book, Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of the Boston Globe’s Reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church, David Pierre documents the “war” on the Church waged by some Globe writers, including McNamara, whose April 2, 2003 column concedes as much. Pierre demonstrates that there has been a “decade-long crusade of animus” againstthe Church from the Globe, citing the fact that while the Catholic clergy abuse scandal received much attention, the Globe ignored several other instances of horrific abuse in the Boston Public Schools.

Just last month McNamara penned a column for Boston’s NPR Station WBUR, which ridiculed her former employer, the Boston Globe, for “cornering the market on papal pandering” during Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States. McNamara denigrates the Globe for “devoting an entire website to what it calls ‘all things Catholic,’ even as it undergoes another round of layoffs in its newsroom this month.” McNamara mocks the new website, Crux, by making fun of a reader who posted on its question corner: “What should I say when defending Mary Magdalene?” In September, McNamara taunted faithful Catholics by writing that “the Pope is making cafeteria Catholics out of conservatives.”

McNamara has a history of fanning the flames of moral panics. In the 1990s, she promoted the preposterous frenzy surrounding allegations of satanic ritual abuse at daycare centers. Siding with the prosecution—against the falsely accused day care providers in Massachusetts—McNamara published columns (only available on microfilm now) praising the prevailing wisdom of believing the children, even when it was revealed that the sex abuse interviewers had prodded suggestible children into fabricating stories of the most unbelievable abuse that could never have happened. Still, McNamara continued the narrative of the evil daycare worker long after the convictions had been overturned and the prosecutors had been disgraced. As late as 1997, McNamara described as “nonsense” a child abuse conference held in Salem, MA, which compared accusations of massive child sexual abuse in day care centers with the Salem witch trials.

Unable to acknowledge that the daycare abuse panic had been driven by overzealous prosecutors and misguided child welfare workers, McNamara wrote a fawning column in 2010 about Martha Coakley, the Attorney General involved in the Boston daycare abuse trials; and in 2014, McNamara defended Coakley yet again in her campaign for governor of Massachusetts when the GOP candidate reminded voters about Coakley’s role in mismanaging child protective services.

McNamara continues her campaign today to discredit the Church. Yet, to their credit, the editors at the Boston Globe have moved on. In some important ways, Spotlight can indeed shine a light for us on yesterday’s journalism—the kind of journalism practiced by yesterday’s journalists. Spotlight reminds us of the days before the proliferation of websites and blogs which could have offered a counter narrative to the one promoted by McNamara of evil daycare providers or an evil Church covering up the sexual abuse of children in their care. Despite the opening scenes of the film, the Globe did not even “break” the story of the scandal surrounding Fr. Geoghan, the pedophile priest at the center of the clergy abuse scandal. While Eileen McNamara may have published an op-ed on Geoghan, she was simply drawing upon the investigative work that Kristin Lombardi, a writer for the alternative weekly newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, had published in 2001—a full year before the Globe became involved. Even Boston Magazine took the filmmakers to task for neglecting to credit the writers at the Boston Phoenix for breaking the story, suggesting that “Kristen Lombardi of the Phoenix connected the dots in 2001. The Globe’s Spotlight team debuted their series in 2002. Where’s the confusion?”

Failing to give attribution to Lombardi was a serious lapse by the filmmakers. According to the narrative presented in Spotlight, McNamara’s 2002 column on Geoghan piqued the interest of then-Globe editor Marty Baron, who then mobilized his Spotlight investigative team.  It is difficult to believe that the filmmakers did not know about the Phoenix leadership on this story. According to the director, every detail was important—even the clothing worn by Globe reporters in 2002. New York Times reporter, Ravi Somaiya, a former Gawker editor, published an entire article recently on how effectively the film “uncannily captured” the particular style of clothing of the Boston journalist—replete with baggy chinos and blue oxford cloth shirts.  It is unfortunate for Dunn, Gilman and Kurkijian that the filmmakers’ attention to detail did not reach to authenticating the true role they played in the clergy abuse scandal.

Still, the Boston Globe reporters must be credited with expanding upon the investigative reporting initiated by Lombardi. The ability of the Globe reporters to convince Massachusetts Superior Court judge Constance Sweeney to order sealed court records to be opened was the real game-changer in Boston because it gave the Globe reporters access to thousands of previously confidential documents which chronicles decades of priestly abuse and secret settlements. In some ways, once the records were unsealed, the Spotlight team became journalistic transcribers—publishing horrific stories of priestly abuse from the long sealed files. And, while the team never acknowledges that it was the victims’ attorneys who wanted the private records sealed in the first place, the decision by the judge to open these records shows clearly how little power the Catholic Church held in Boston in 2002—and how much power the Boston Globe wielded.

Gay Identity of Priest Abusers Downplayed
The most important lapse in Spotlight though is not surprising because it is a lapse that the Church itself has failed to address—the fact that the overwhelming number of priestly abuse cases involved homosexual behavior between priests and post-pubescent boys, most of them teenagers. While the Boston Globe continues today to call it a priestly pedophile scandal, the reality is that other than the Goeghan case, which involved true pedophilia, the majority of the cases involved gay priests who were sexually active with post-pubescent teenage boys and young seminarians. While such homosexual activities with minors are criminal offenses—and a serious violation of the priestly vows—they are certainly not examples of pedophilia or child molestation.

Unfortunately, neither the film nor the Church is willing to acknowledge the role that homosexuality has played in the priestly abuse scandal. In fact, Eileen McNamara published a column in the Boston Globe on December 4, 2005, criticizing the Church for even considering a policy that would expel openly gay seminarians from ordination—sarcastically asking, “Where is the long-awaited Vatican policy that would protect women and girls from priests who cannot control their heterosexual tendencies?”

It is likely that Spotlight will win several awards because Hollywood seems to celebrate films that portray the Catholic Church as a source of oppression. Many reviewers are already predicting an Oscar for “Best Picture.” Still, faithful Catholics can take comfort in the fact that this film is about yesterday. The Church has been revitalized as Pope Francis has brought a new appreciation for the gift that is the Church. Faithful Catholics can be encouraged that even the Boston Globe has moved on from the scandal—creating space and resources to a noble Catholic endeavor like Crux. And this really bothers yesterday’s columnists like Eileen McNamara. But, aside from yesterday’s readers, it is unlikely that her anti-Catholic diatribes will make much difference anymore.

Still, such fictionalizing is not innocuous, and great harm continues to be done through this film to the Church and her innocent priests, bishops, and faithful laity. While Jack Dunn is demanding that the fabricated scenes involving him be deleted, he says nothing about the false narrative surrounding Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law as a cold, calculating monster who bullied the Boston press into silence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps one day as the moral panic surrounding the scandal dissipates, we will begin to shine a spotlight on the real truth and the real villains in this scandal—the gay priests who preyed on teenage boys and young men who trusted them. Catholics should demand no less.

Anne Hendershott

By

Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

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