June 16, 2019

Shining a “Spotlight” on the sacrilege

“Marty belongs in the pantheon of great Jewish heroes,” Josh Singer, a co-writer of the Oscar-nominated film “Spotlight,” said during a recent interview at a Santa Monica coffeehouse. 

He was discussing Marty Baron, the real-life newsman at the center of the much-lauded film about how Boston Globe reporters exposed a conspiracy of silence about pedophile Catholic priests some 15 years ago. Baron, then the Globe’s brand-new editor, seems rather stiff and hardly heroic as he attends a meeting with the newspaper’s investigative team on his first day of work in 2001.

To be sure, it’s not the most welcoming environment for the former editor of the Miami Herald. Boston’s media had already pointedly noted that Baron — who in real life is now executive editor of the Washington Post — was to become the first Jewish editor at a publication whose readers were 53 percent Catholic, while Baron’s reporters on the Globe’s investigative team all were raised Catholic. And one character remarks that not only was the new editor coming from Florida, he was also an “unmarried man from the Jewish faith who hates baseball” in a town obsessed with the Red Sox. Later in the film, a church leader insinuates that Baron is a meddling outsider as he gives the editor a copy of the church’s catechism, advising him to “think of it as the Cardinal’s guide to Boston.”

Unabashed, the reserved but intense Baron (played in the film by Liev Schreiber) tells his reporters he wants them to look into the highest echelons of the church, because he’s noted a news item about a priest accused of child abuse. He wants to see if there is more to the story.

The movie unfurls as a tense procedural drama about how Baron and his investigative reporters, members of a unit known as Spotlight, meticulously research and ultimately publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning series unearthing story after story of how church leaders protected priests accused of child abuse at the expense of the accusers’ families, shuffling the abusive priests, some repeat offenders, from parish to parish while clandestinely settling cases through payoffs to victims.

Throughout the investigation, Baron remains unperturbed by threats from community leaders, refusing to back down as he pushes his reporters to confront church officials — initially by going to court to force the diocese to turn over incriminating sealed documents. “You want to sue the church?” one character incredulously remarks in the film. That sort of thing just had not been done before in Boston. And Baron makes it clear that he doesn’t just want more stories about pedophile priests; he wants evidence of church cover-ups of abuse. “We’re going after the system,” Schreiber says in the film. Baron’s attitude stands in stark contrast to that of previous Globe editors, who had put out “a vibe from the top down of ‘no more priests; we’re done with that,’ ” Singer said.  

The film has received laudatory reviews and been favorably compared to the iconic Watergate journalism film “All the President’s Men.” It received six Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and best original screenplay, for Singer and Tom McCarthy, who is also the movie’s director.

Singer, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home near Philadelphia, said he was drawn to the project, in part, because, “When you’re raised Jewish, there’s something in our Bible stories that’s all about raising one’s hand up against the status quo. It’s Abraham having the temerity to break all of those idols in a land where everyone is worshipping them. Or David, a guy with a slingshot, standing up to a giant and knocking him down.”

Josh Singer, co-writer of “Spotlight”

Pretty lofty comparisons for the likes of a journalist. Yet, he continues, “Marty is a guy who went into a town where he was a total outsider, as a Jew in a pretty Catholic city, and where the Boston Globe was a Yankee Catholic institution. To go in there and say, ‘We’re going to take on the church,’ on his very first day — that took a lot of bravery and chutzpah.”

Singer, who is in his 40s, has a Jewish father; his mother, born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, converted to Judaism before he was born. Singer grew up singing in his synagogue’s choir; he went on to graduate magna cum laude from Yale and to earn both a law degree and a master’s degree in business from Harvard before trying his hand at screenwriting.

He wrote a spec script on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that earned him a place in the writers’ room on TV’s “The West Wing” in the early 2000s; another script exploring why a “nice Jewish boy” like George Gershwin would write the great African-American opera “Porgy and Bess” landed him the job penning the 2013 WikiLeaks drama, “The Fifth Estate.” 

A desire to delve more deeply into how investigative journalists work spurred Singer to sign on to “Spotlight” when director McCarthy came calling in 2012. “It was clear that we were going to tell the story through the eyes of the journalists,” he said. “We felt like there was a good detective story there.”

The screenwriters’ research process was often akin to investigating the investigators; they spent hours speaking with almost every character in the film.

Valuable insight about church culture came courtesy of Richard Sipe, a former priest who had spent decades studying the psychology of pedophile clergy. It is believed that about half of priests violate their vows of celibacy at some time, Sipe told the screenwriters, so a culture of secrecy prevails within the priesthood that can lead to tolerating and even protecting abusers.

 “These priests are predators, so they look for kids from troubled homes who aren’t likely to complain,” Singer said. “One survivor’s father had just committed suicide and his mother was schizophrenic. And they’re all from pretty poor families, where the church is held in high regard.”

The screenwriters met with victims of egregious abuse — among them Phil Saviano, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP); Saviano described how his parish priest began telling him dirty jokes and showing him pornography at age 11, “until one day, he asks you to [perform oral sex]— and how do you say no to God?” His character says this, in more graphic language, in the film. 

Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer recounted how she urged another victim to eschew the word “molest” in favor of explicit descriptions of his abuse. “We also wanted to be very specific with our language and terminology,” Singer said of the script — even though the screenwriters avoided flashbacks to scenes of abuse. 

Singer insists that “Spotlight” does not take issue with the Catholic religion but rather the institution of the church. The movie also explores “the wrestling of how one maintains faith in the face of something like this” — especially for Sipe and the Spotlight team’s lapsed Catholic reporters.

Even so, the Jewish screenwriter said he would have had trepidations about exposing abuse within another religious institution had McCarthy not been raised devoutly Catholic.

So far, the church has responded mostly positively to the film, which screened recently for the Vatican’s sexual abuse commission, Singer said. 

“But a lot of public statements from the church have been trying to make sure that this is perceived as something in the past,” he added. “However, the abuse is still going on and they haven’t done enough. They still need to push for greater transparency and accountability not only for the priests who abuse these kids, but also the prelates who have turned a blind eye in the past. The pope announced that he was bringing a tribunal to hold bishops and others accountable, but he’s not announced who’s on the tribunal, what the punishments will be and how the tribunal will work.”

The film also not so subtly makes a case for the need for more investigative journalism at a time when newspapers are slashing budgets or folding. 

“The bottom line is that we’ve had more than a dozen metropolitan dailies go out of business in the United States, with tens of thousands of employees losing their jobs,” Singer said.

 “At the Los Angeles Times, we used to have 19 people covering the state legislature and now there are four. I don’t know how you can pick up on graft and corruption with four reporters versus 19, so I think this is a real problem.  When we don’t have enough reporters on the ground, that’s when people get hurt.”