Was the Boston Globe’s Church Abuse Scoop the Last Great Print Story?


By Isaac Chotiner

Newspapers make rare appearances in movies these days, and when they do they usually function as a throwaway detail. (Spider-Man works at a made-up New York rag.) But the new film Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, is arguably the most unabashedly romanticized filmic depiction of hardworking print journalists since All The President’s Men.

The movie, opening Nov. 6, focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team, which helped uncover the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal in early 2002. The leader of that team, which went on to win a Pulitzer for its work, was Walter Robinson, a Globe veteran, who is played by Michael Keaton in the film. (The other members of the on-screen investigative unit include Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams.)

I spoke to Robinson by phone recently. He left the Globe in 2006 to teach journalism at Northeastern, then returned to the paper last year as editor-at-large. Robinson also took some time over the past several years to advise the filmmakers. He was chatty and warm and, appealingly, made no effort to hide his excitement about the movie.

Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the changing role of the church in Boston, Pope Francis, how the Internet helped blow the abuse story wide open, and whether movie stars are as good-looking as the people they portray. The conversation has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: I guess I can call you Robby since everyone in the movie does, even people who don’t know you.

Walter Robinson: Yeah, I know. It’s not my real name. But whatever.

The movie presents Boston as being unwilling to confront what was going on in the Catholic Church. In the last 13 years, has the relationship between the city and the church changed?

Yeah. One sort of very concrete example of the change is that the church always had its way with the Massachusetts legislature. It had its own lobbyist on Beacon Hill, and if there was legislation that the cardinal did not approve of, it was very rare for such legislation to pass. They had more power than any other—pardon me for saying this—special interest.

You’re allowed to say it.

Yeah, I can say it now. There is a law in Massachusetts called a “mandated reporting law.” That is, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers are required by law to report any suspicions they have about abuse of children, whether it’s sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse. If they don’t report it, they themselves are subject to criminal penalties.

In Massachusetts, there had been attempts over a number of years to include clergymen under that law. Those attempts always failed. My recollection is that organizations of Protestant ministers and Jewish congregations in Massachusetts had always supported that legislation, and the Catholic Church had not, and therefore it never passed. Within months of the moment that this story crashed onto the shore, in 2002, that legislation went through both houses of the legislature and was signed by the governor really fast. The church lost almost all of its political clout in Massachusetts as a consequence of the clergy scandal. What that says is that public confidence in the church, in the institution, eroded very swiftly. I don’t think it’s come back all that much.

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