Oscar Hangover Special: Why “Spotlight” Is a Terrible Film


I don’t “believe the victims”.

I was in Boston in the Spring of 2002 reporting on the priest scandal, and because I know some of what is untrue, I don’t believe the personal injury lawyers or the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team or the Catholic “faithful” who became harpies outside Boston churches, carrying signs with images of Satan, hurling invective at congregants who’d just attended Mass, and at least once – this in my presence – spitting in the face of a person who dared dispute them.

I don’t believe the prosecutors who pursued tainted cases or the therapists who revived junk science or the juries that sided with them or the judges who failed to act justly or the people who made money off any of this.

And I am astonished (though I suppose I shouldn’t be) that, across the past few months, ever since Spotlight hit theaters, otherwise serious left-of-center people have peppered their party conversation with effusions that the film reflects a heroic journalism, the kind we all need more of.

I don’t believe the claims of all who say they are victims – or who prefer the more tough-minded label ‘survivor’ – because ready belief is not part of a journalist’s mental kit, but also because what happened in 2002 makes it difficult to distinguish real claims from fraudulent or opportunistic ones without independent research. What editor Marty Baron and the Globe sparked with their 600 stories and their confidential tip line for grievances was not laudatory journalism but a moral panic, and unfortunately for those who are telling the truth, truth was its casualty.

By their nature, moral panics are hysterical. They jettison reason for emotion, transform accusation into proof, spur more accusation and create a climate that demands not deliberation or evidence or resistance to prejudice but mindless faith.

They are the enemy of skepticism, which those on the left and near-left, liberals, progressives, regard as the sword and shield of journalism when it’s convenient or ideologically appealing. The Globe did not so much practice journalism as it constructed a courtroom of panic, one that reversed the presumption of innocence and spilled over into real courtrooms where real defendants didn’t stand a chance.

In 2002 I investigated only one case, but it was a doozy: that of Father Paul Shanley, who figures in Spotlight and who was declared a “depraved priest” by the Globe’s editorial page of April 9, 2002, the day after a PowerPoint show put on for the press by personal injury lawyer Eric MacLeish. Shanley is now imprisoned for crimes that are heinous in description and absolutely unsupported by evidence.

Since then I have followed the case of another priest: Father Gordon MacRae of New Hampshire, who does not figure in the film. He was accused, tried and convicted in 1994, a time when Spotlight would have you believe that every sexual accusation against a priest either fell on deaf ears or was handled in a hush-hush settlement, and every playground, church and rectory was a hunting ground for the great Whore of Babylon. MacRae remains imprisoned for crimes that are only slightly less heinous in description and absolutely unsupported by evidence.

Both men were called monsters. Both men were offered plea deals by their respective prosecutors that, had they actually committed the crimes, would be an affront to justice and proportion. Shanley was offered time served – the seven months he’d been jailed while awaiting trial – plus two and a half years’ house arrest if only he’d say he was guilty of raping a child on Sunday mornings between Masses. MacRae was offered three years in prison, later reduced to two, if only he’d say he was guilty of cruelly molesting a teenager. Both men refused and went to their fates abandoned by church hierarchy.

“Can you imagine”, Shanley said to me after his conviction in 2005, “here I am, the worst monster, a danger to children everywhere, and they offer me time served? … But for refusing to lie, I got twelve to fifteen years.”

Shanley did lie about his sexuality. As a young man he’d had sex with teenagers and grown men. He had a boyfriend. He himself was probably not the best boyfriend. He was politically radical. During the AIDS crisis, with a fellow priest he had run a motel in California for a mostly gay clientele. In the 1960s he opposed the war on Vietnam. With a nun he had started a mobile health unit to serve street people in Boston. He was on the action phone tree of Gay Community News. He spoke a lot, for mercy and love and against the church’s condemnations of homosexuality, divorce, contraception, sex. He spoke of social sin: racism, exploitation, police stings, violence. He made enemies. He made mistakes. He was a good man, a bad man, a sinner. He had a sign on his desk that read, “How Dare You Assume I’m Heterosexual” when he ran a counseling service that advertised, “Gay, Bi, Confused – Want to talk about it?” He didn’t always only talk, and some men who saw him were liberated and some were more confused, and some were not able to navigate the difference easily and later found in him a simple explanation for everything that went wrong. He was not brave enough, honest enough, in an institution that could be neither; in a straight world that required bravery to be honest. The “Spotlight” team got almost everything wrong. The movie doesn’t even try to be right.

MacRae is politically conservative. He writes blogs in prison about God’s mercy, God’s love and the meaning of Lent. He was not a critic of the church, but the church left him to his own defense anyway, meaning public defense, which in his case was enough to make a deal but not enough for trial. MacRae got sixty-seven years for refusing to lie. Let that sink in.

The multiple affronts to justice in MacRae’s case and the gross unreliability of his accuser have been amply documented by Dorothy Rabinowitz in The Wall Street Journal, by the National Center for Reason and Justice and by Ryan MacDonald, summarizing recent legal papers in the case on MacRae’s website, thesestonewalls.com. Last year a federal district court judge rejected MacRae’s appeal for habeas corpus, refusing to allow a hearing on the merits, or new witness testimony, or a statement from MacRae himself. “Rot behind bars”, the judge essentially said.

That injury – despite the priest’s position outside the direct glare of the Globe’s “Spotlight” – is the legacy of the courtroom of panic that made “the pedophile priest” a cultural bogeyman, a devil, who need not be real but only named to light the fires of wrath. This is what the scribblers and the swells in Hollywood celebrated on Oscar night.

Here is what else they celebrated: the bunk of recovered memory; the Globe reporters’ failure to challenge any charlatan who embraces it; and the lure of money.

It’s unseemly to mention money. We are asked to believe that the ATM that is the Catholic Church, password VICTIM, could not possibly be an inducement to any of the thousands of accusers who have lined up since the “Spotlight” team’s first breathy reports – as if the usual reflexes of American money-grubbing are inoperative in this one area of life, and the people who, for instance, clambered for cash to ease the pain and suffering of having seen a priest naked in the YMCA really are salt of the earth.

The church was known to have begun making settlements with accusers by the early 1990s. Some, perhaps many, were legitimate, but as a closet culture, an institution scandalized by scandal, the church is also particularly vulnerable to extortion. Spotlight does not reflect that reality, just as the Globe did not seriously explore it. Every financial settlement in the film is proof of beastliness.

(The rock certainty from which Spotlight proceeds on this point leads to its most stunning, bite-the-hand-that-feeds misrepresentation: in which Eric MacLeish, played by Billy Crudup, is a smooth hack whom the noble actor-reporters disdain for getting rich from settlements rather than trust as a source, which MacLeish was to them in real life, a vital link between the press, private interests and state prosecutors. More on that later.)

The church settled four claims against Shanley that emerged in the early 1990s but concerned events said to have occurred twenty years earlier. Spotlight and “Spotlight” and millions of repetitive words spilled on the subject claim Shanley’s diocesan file is stuffed with allegations of sexual abuse from the 1960s and 70s which the church ignored. That is false. There was one hearsay allegation from 1967, which Shanley vehemently denied and church superiors did not pursue further. Of those claims settled in the 1990s one was brought by relatives of a dead man; another by a blackmailer who was making harassing phone calls to church workers. Once the settlement business got rolling in the 90s, and galloped at full speed post-2002, accusations and payouts multiplied. How many are valid? Having read a number of post-2002 affidavits, some of which are incredible, some of which describe willing sexual behavior, some of which seem to follow a script, I won’t hazard a guess. The point is they were not sitting in Shanley’s file for thirty years ignored.

It was in the early 1990s also that a drug addict and criminal named Thomas Grover said he had been molested as a 15-year-old by MacRae. The first assault, he said, occurred during a counseling session in the early 1980s. He returned for counseling three more times because, he said, after each bout with the priest he suffered total amnesia, his memory erased until one day years later he remembered all. Grover eventually collected $200,000 from the church.

Under pressure from the Globe, MacLeish and others, the church paid Shanley’s accuser, a military malcontent named Paul Busa, $500,000; it defrocked Shanley, presumed guilty on every front, and it did all of this before the trial had even begun. Let that sink in, too.

Busa claimed he was raped every Sunday or every other Sunday after being plucked from catechism classes. He said this began when he was 6, and each time he too suffered total amnesia, thus going like a lamb to the slaughter, unknowing, again and again for three years, on the busiest day, in a busy church, where children were in the care of several adults, none of whom could corroborate anything.

Busa made up his memories – literally, he started sketching them out in journal entries dated before his claimed epiphany of remembering – and those newly minted memories degenerated before and during the trial. Thus the jury heard of only a few instances of molestation, thin on detail, vague as to time and less baroque than initially stated. On the witness stand Busa substituted tears and shouting for recall. Some jurors later said they considered tears and shouting evidence. Although he had sworn in depositions that the priest had forced him to perform fellatio, on the witness stand Busa couldn’t recall. The judge just dropped that count from the charges, and the prosecutor argued that the accuser’s shifting stories, which in another context might be called perjury or at least backpedalling, evasion, unreliability, actually proved his veracity. If Busa had wanted to lie, she said, “it could have been a better lie”.

Claims of sexual abuse based on recovered memory – or repressed memory of trauma, dissociative amnesia, the names are many – were not uncommon in 1994, when MacRae faced trial, but they had been virtually eliminated in courts by 2005, when Shanley was at the bar. Research psychologists had produced a formidable and damning body of literature on the subject. Therapists who once rode high on the spurious diagnosis had been disgraced, stripped of their licenses and revealed as dangerous frauds in successful malpractice suits. And scientific-legal teams had established precedent that this was “junk science”, hence inadmissible in prosecutions. (Anyone interested in the record of reason can start with the work of Harrison G. Pope, Jr. et al., Richard McNally et al., and with the court rulings in State of Rhode Island v. Quattrocchi [1999] and Barrett v. Hyldburg [1998].)

These legal challenges were complicated and expensive, beyond the capacity of MacRae’s public defender. Shanley’s defense should have been better equipped, but it was not. More important here, neither was the Globe’s “Spotlight” team. Its reporters treated Busa’s ravings with utmost respect, as it had the ravings of Busa’s friend Gregory Ford, who provided the template for Busa and two other men, who also claimed serial rape on Sundays in the same church followed by total amnesia.

Gregory Ford had been Boston’s favorite victim, the ultimate proof of Shanley’s monstrosity, from the time MacLeish introduced him to the world during that PowerPoint presentation in April of 2002. I won’t relate the young man’s sad and tortured tale here except to say that his claim of recovered memory (which Busa copied in all important respects) did not ring alarm bells with those noble reporters or their editors. When it was pointed out that Ford’s own mother was the catechism teacher at the time he claimed his agony of weekly rape began, the family, the lawyers, the press, the prosecution, simply amended the start date. When the prosecution dropped Ford from its child rape case against Shanley because at various times Ford had also said he was raped by his father, a neighbor, a relative, our noble reporters did not review their past unskeptical reports and say, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Likewise when the two other men were dropped from the case, and Busa was left standing alone, the press, like the prosecution, pretended it didn’t matter. Against the advice of its legal counsel, the church had settled the civil suit MacLeish had brought on behalf of all four men. Ford faded away, with a check for more than $1.4 million. At the time of Shanley’s trial, broadcast live on TV and covered by media across the country, it was as if Ford had never existed, but he and the others are counted among Shanley’s victims.

The prosecution’s expert witness in the trial, Dr. James Chu, came from the freak fringe of clinical psychology that treats stories of recovered memory as sacred text. The Globe, whose Pulitzer for public interest reporting was by then catching dust, apparently did not think that here was an occasion for public vigilance, since in the not so distant past plain people, not priests, not those pre-emptively branded ‘sicko’ or ‘depraved’ or ‘scum’ but parents, teachers, had been threatened with the loss of everything by someone, anyone, who claimed they suddenly remembered something horrible.

The paper’s reporters did not inform readers that there is no scientific evidence to support the type of “massive amnesia” that Busa and the prosecution were claiming. They did not point out that the notion defies fifty years of research on memory and trauma, involving 120 studies and more than 14,000 persons with documented experiences of rape, sexual abuse, torture, death camps, war or other horrors. They didn’t even offer the colorful aside that Chu’s mentor had promoted belief in Satanic ritual abuse, as well as in a cult involving the KKK, the US military, the Mafia and FTD Florists, until his career ended in a lawsuit brought by a patient who had come to believe under his ministrations that she was a Satanic priestess. The closest the corporate press came was to say that this thoroughly discredited nonsense was controversial. Years later the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard a compelling appeal from Shanley on the junk science at the heart of his prosecution, but the justices ruled that the weight of research and law wasn’t compelling enough in his case. “We’re not willing to be the ones to let the pervert go”, they essentially said.

“But wait!” it will be argued. “None of that is in Spotlight! It’s just a good old movie about the press versus the big bad power structure.”

This is exactly the film’s toxicity, and the Globe’s: what they obscure.

I have focused here on Shanley because I researched his history, read his files, spoke to some of his accusers, interviewed his friends, family and detractors, followed his trial. The numerous and unattended complexities of his case, as well as those of some other priests’ accusers whom I interviewed at length, make me doubt the neat story line that “Spotlight” and Spotlight present for every other case. I speak of MacRae because, apart from the injustice against him, it should be understood that the concept Accusation = Guilt has a long and persistent reach. Although it became the “Spotlight” team’s hallmark, even if the word ‘alleged’ provided occasional perfunctory cover, it predated the Globe’s work, provided a spectacular theorem to which its reporters conformed, and has been hardened by their courtroom of panic – influencing appeals prospects, influencing culture, shaping “the story we all know” whether in fact we know anything at all.

The film’s advertisement for SNAP, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, faithfully represents the Globe’s affiliation. It elides SNAP’s belief that wrongful prosecutions are a minor price to pay in pursuit of its larger mission, something the newspaper didn’t much concern itself with either as it collected its Pulitzer for service in the public interest; something even the Center for Constitutional Rights disregarded in 2011 when it joined with SNAP to file a grotesque brief to the International Criminal Court demanding “investigation and prosecution” of the Vatican for crimes against humanity.

Liberals who cheer this sort of thing ought to ponder whether they have any principles at all, or whether those are contingent, jelly-like and poisoned by prejudice. The CCR brief failed, but its unchallenged acceptance of accusations, anonymous complaints, prosecution arguments, grand jury reports, commission findings with no benefit of cross examination and no recognized rights of the accused is breathtaking, especially when one considers that CCR was simultaneously and courageously arguing on behalf of Guantanamo detainees whose designation as ‘terrorists’ was made in a similar amoeba-like medium of hysteria and accusation. To CCR’s shame, Father MacRae is specifically mentioned in that brief, with respect to allegations of videotape (that is, child porn), which prosecutors threw in at sentencing but for which there is no evidence, according to the lead detective in the case cited by Rabinowitz.

Besides normalizing the presumption of guilt, the Globe’s courtroom of panic made a high and punishing principle out of cheap popular opinion: Well, maybe he didn’t do this, but he had to have done something! Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! Where the victim has to be believed, it doesn’t much matter if one person is telling the truth and one person is a money-grubber (or, to put the kindest interpretation on it, just looking for a simple explanation for all the troubles of his or her life). It doesn’t much matter who is in the dock or behind bars for what because, after all, statutes of limitations are limiting, and the notion that guilt might go unpunished is intolerable. Someone must pay. The church must pay. Priests must pay, because even if they didn’t do something, they said something; or they said nothing but they should have spoken; they knew nothing but they should have known; they should have acted. We “thought they were God”, and we must have our pound of flesh.

In the film an actor-victim says something to the effect of “I thought he was God” regarding a priest. It is a phrase I heard many times in 2002, a phrase quoted at the time in the Globe, in Vanity Fair and elsewhere. I was struck that the reporters never paused to consider this, but simply reported it as if it were a reasonable conclusion for a Catholic child, as if its alarming deference to authority were not a fundamental problem, with or without sexual abuse. It occurred to me hearing it again, unexamined, in Spotlight that this probably was not an oversight, not a problem the reporters couldn’t plumb because they were on deadline or had space constraints or didn’t know quite how to approach it. It occurred to me that their aim, conscious or not, was not to strengthen children or to encourage independence or self-possession, but simply to replace one deference for another, one authority for another. The Globe became authority, and so too all its imitators, all its accuser-sources and their attorneys, SNAP and state prosecutors and all those people outside churches spewing venom and chanting, “Believe the Victims” – unanswerable, undoubted and now joined by Hollywood.

Here, finally, we come to why Spotlight is so unfair to Eric MacLeish. I am no fan of MacLeish. I interviewed him back in 2002, and it did not go well. I began by trying to be cool, a mere sponge to take in his views. He, I quickly realized, was being who he was, the authoritative source who shaped the way reporters saw the Shanley case, or at least how they reported it down to minor detail. There was an 800-page personnel file; I had read every page. MacLeish was citing discrete passages as evidence of the priest’s depravity. They were the same passages I had already seen quoted in the Globe and The New York Times and any other paper whose reporters had spoken to the lawyer, each one identical, with the same interpretation, MacLeish’s interpretation. He said something to the effect that no decent person could think that this man Shanley was anything but a monster. I objected, he objected, I strenuously objected, and soon the interview was over: “Of course now I’m not going to let you speak to my client”, he said in parting; that was Gregory Ford, with whose family I’d had an appointment scheduled for the next day.

To suggest, as the movie does, that MacLeish was not passionate about his clients is outrageous. To suggest, ditto, that Mitchell Garabedian, another prominent personal injury lawyer, played by Stanley Tucci in the film, was a selfless worker among the downtrodden, wanting nothing beyond justice and the thin gruel of his lonely lunch, is more outrageous. Both men thundered about morality, both got richer in the process, and the only journalist I’m aware of to have investigated the lucrative legal business of the church scandal was Daniel Lyons, whose revealing articles appeared in Forbes in 2003.

But there is something more, because MacLeish was particularly interested in prosecutions. As a condition of his settlements, at least by 2002, he made his clients vow that they would cooperate in any state criminal action that might arise as a result of his civil actions. This made MacLeish not just an authority but a conduit for state authority, and his active relationship with the press meant that he was organizing it, too, into an arm of the prosecution, an arm of the state.

By the time jury selection occurred in the child rape case against Shanley, every prospective juror said he or she knew something about the defendant; most commonly, what they knew was that he had been involved with the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA. This was not true, as I had learned from individuals who were present at the founding meeting that Shanley supposedly attended. But MacLeish had made the insinuation at the aforementioned PowerPoint presentation based upon a selective passage from a newspaper article in Shanley’s file, whereupon reporters, willingly led, printed the priest’s membership as fact, which was then repeated endlessly.

I had not been in Boston for that presentation, but the CD of the files I received from MacLeish’s office thoughtfully included the extracts he had highlighted for a hungry press. Every gross misrepresentation of Shanley’s personnel file I read from then on – and there are many – issued from those extracts. As a propagandist for his cause, MacLeish was masterful. The PowerPoint show was the highlight of a press conference called to release 800 pages of documents. It occurred in the afternoon, ran two and a half hours long, featured the emotional declamations of accusers, and ended just in time for reporters to hurry back to their desks to file before the afternoon deadline. Their stories would be used as source material by fact checkers and other writers, bloggers, soapbox orators, everyday people, and would fold into the common trade of fable. If any of the scribes who took up the anti-Shanley cudgel actually read the whole file after writing their stories, they left no trace.

Robin Washington, who was with the Boston Herald at the time, told me later that during the press conference some of the assembled reporters wept. Their tears, too, no doubt helped lubricate the wheels of prosecution. After Shanley was found guilty, Washington wrote in the Duluth News Tribune that Shanley’s real trial had been MacLeish’s press conference, the “lawyer playing judge, jury and executioner”, presenting the priest as “the devil incarnate”.

The reporters, though, were MacLeish’s agents, and not just his, and not just with respect to Shanley. What Spotlight, for all its tedium, captures so precisely is the free-floating suspicion, the eerie sense of collective menace and the urge to punish that the Globe and its “Spotlight” team fanned in their certainty as public servants, under running heads in every day’s paper, right next to reports from the war on terror. That’s a hell of a thing to celebrate.

JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.