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Florence Snyder: Church scandal underscores importance of press

in Apolitical/Top Headlines by

At long last, there’s an edge-of-seat movie about journalism where the woman on the I-Team is not sleeping with her boss or her source.

That’s just one of a million things to love about “Spotlight.” It’s a two-hour cinematic distillation of two years in the lives of Boston Globe reporters as they piece together the big picture of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of pedophile priests harbored and enabled by Cardinal Bernard Law. Audiences burst into applause as the end credits roll.

Forbes Magazine calls the film “a superb love letter to journalistic competence.”  Indeed, it’s a video textbook.

Reporters knocking on doors. Reporters getting doors slammed in their faces.  Reporters unfazed by the dead rat decaying in a dusty storage room where they discover old church directories. Reporters turning old church directories into proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

All in a day’s work for journalists who get their stories from people who aren’t being paid to talk to them – and whose documents are hard to get and harder still to assemble into a damning database. In one particularly satisfying scene, reporter Mark Rezendes refuses to be stonewalled by a smarmy court clerk who won’t give him a public file full of smoking guns. Rezendes goes straight to the duty judge and politely but firmly insists that the law be followed.

Like most jaw-dropping scandals, the Catholic Church sex abuse story hid in plain sight for a very long time.

Small stories that should have made reporting radar light up had been published in the Globe. Victims had approached the paper years earlier and couldn’t get the time of day. Eventually, some found their way to the Boston Phoenix’s Kristen Lombardi.

Lombardi, now with the Center for Public Integrity, is a fearless and highly decorated investigative reporter, but an alt-weekly was no match for Cardinal Law’s decades of experience at running a conspiracy of silence.

The paradigm shifted when Martin Baron arrived for his first day of work as editor of the Globe. Baron had held the same job at the Miami Herald, and no one who worked with him there was the least bit surprised when the movie-Baron ordered his startled staff to push past the omerta that prevailed in the church, the courts, and the community.

The real Baron told the real backstory to WGBH’s Emily Rooney in 2011:

“When I first came, before I even came, I was reading stories in the Globe about Father Geoghan and that he was alleged to have abused 80 children. It was an extraordinary story and I thought, what could be done with that? I read a column by Eileen McNamara who was a columnist for us at the time, who had said these documents were under seal and perhaps the truth would never be known.

“It came up at my first news meeting here. I raised the question of what we could do …”

In the beginning, the Spotlight team could think of plenty of reasons to do something else. They’d all been raised Catholic, and nobody wants to tell Grandma that her trusted spiritual advisers are not really doing the Lord’s work

To Baron, “perhaps the truth would never be known” was an unacceptable place for a local newspaper to be.

The Spotlight reporters warm to the story as they pursue the hard task of thawing out sources who understandably believe the Globe is in the tank for the church.  Slowly, the traumatized victims come around.

At the movies, and in real life, the payoff goes like this:

Source: You can use my name if you want.

Reporter: Thanks, Patrick.

Source: Don’t thank me. Just get the assholes.

Florence Beth Snyder is a Tallahassee-based lawyer and consultant.

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