Michael Rezendes of “Spotlight” fame gives latest “My Life As” lecture

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By Arielle Martinez

When Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes and his fellow journalists reported the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in 2002, he did not think the story would be turned into an Oscar-winning film more than a decade later.

“We sit at our desks, we read musty court documents, we talk on the phone and we sit around with our feet on the desk and talk,” he said. “Now if anyone thinks that’s going to make a major action thriller, all I can say is ‘Good luck to you.’ ”

But sure enough, in 2015, Rezendes was portrayed by actor Mark Ruffalo in “Spotlight” the drama that won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

Rezendes spoke about his work and the creation of the film at Stony Brook University on Tuesday night as the latest speaker in the School of Journalism’s “My Life As” lecture series.

Rezendes was a member of the Globe’s Spotlight Team, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for investigating the veiling of child abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The team’s reporting revealed that officials in the archdiocese not only hid accusations of abuses against John Geoghan — a priest who molested more than 100 children over 30 years in six different parishes — but also hid similar accusations against 70 other priests in the Boston archdiocese alone.

“In those days, that was a mind-boggling number,” Rezendes said.

Rezendes explained that although other publications had reported on sexual abuse committed by clergy in the past, the Globe’s coverage was different in several ways.

The Globe exposed the Church’s cover-up of the abuse, provided insight on the scope of the abuse problem, used the Church’s own internal records in the reporting, and published those records on the Globe’s website.

“That made the stories bulletproof,” Rezendes said. “No one could saw these stories were the result of the Boston Globe’s liberal bias or its disagreements with the church on other issues such as contraception. These document prove the cover-up. These documents shed some light on the scope of the problem.

““I’m hoping there are a lot of journalism students who will watch [the movie] and take heart from it and also take some instruction,” he added.

Rezendes said that using the power of the Internet was particularly innovative back in 2002.

“Back then there was no social media, there was no Facebook, there was no Twitter, but people were using the Internet,” he said. “People could read our stories and then go to the actual document that we were describing and see that we were reporting the truth.”

“I think this was the first major journalistic investigation that went viral using the Internet,” he added.

In 2001, Rezendes and the rest of the Spotlight team — editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, supervisor Ben Bradlee Jr., and reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll — started their investigation after the new top editor at the Globe, Marty Baron, read a column about lawsuits against the archdiocese.

“Marty Baron believed it was the job of the journalist to find the truth and to communicate that truth to the readers,” Rezendes said.

He said the Spotlight team was intrigued by the story but knew that it would be a challenge to pursue the story because the Globe’s readership was largely Catholic.

Rezendes gained the trust of Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer for abuse victims who claimed that Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, knew that Geoghan was abusing children and simply kept reassigning him to other parishes, thus allowing the abuse to continue and spread.

Garabedian then helped Rezendes find publicly available documents that confirmed these suspicions, including a letter to Law from a fellow bishop and another from a family member of several abuse victims complaining about the archdiocese’s failure to stop Geoghan.

“This proved that John Geoghan wasn’t just a bad apple that slipped through the cracks,” Rezendes said. “This proved that the highest Church officials in the Boston archdiocese knew exactly who they were dealing with, and they were allowing this man to continue working as a priest endangering more and more children who were being molested.”

By talking to abuse victims and a former priest who worked to rehabilitate pedophile priests, the Spotlight team found an epidemic of child abuse by priests in the Boston area and an extensive cover-up by the archdiocese.

“I would meet with the families, I would meet the parents, the kids, everybody,” Rezendes said. “There were several times where I would be in a room with these people and within a half an hour, everyone was in tears. It was emotional. It was gripping.”

After a judge ruled in the Globe’s favor to unseal more legal documents, the Spotlight team set about writing stories based on their findings in the documents.

“There was this tremendous understanding, forgiveness and compassion for this serial molester, and there was never anywhere, never in those 10,000 pages, any similar understanding or compassion for the children or their families,” Rezendes said.

The Spotlight team published four stories in January 2002: one about the cover-up of the abuse by the Church, one about Geoghan’s psychiatric records and his modus operandi for abusing children, one about the letters Law and other officials sent to Geoghan after his reassignments, and one about the number of priests that were accused of abuse and the scope of the abuse problem.

“Seventy priests in the Boston archdiocese had been criminally accused of molesting children,” Rezendes said. “By the time we finished our reporting a year later, the number was 150, and today that number is more than 250 just in the Boston archdiocese, priests who had been accused of molesting children credibly since 1950.”

Rezendes said the reports caused a “tidal wave” of victims to come forth and reach out to the Spotlight team to tell their stories. The team published 600 stories over the next year.

On Dec. 13, 2002, Law resigned and fled to the Vatican while two grand jury investigations — one state and one federal — were underway. Law was eventually promoted to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

In March 2003, the Spotlight team ended its investigation into the clergy abuse scandal and moved on to its next project.

“We exhausted the patience of our readers, and we exhausted our own emotional reserves,” Rezendes said.

He said that even 14 years after the Globe’s investigation into the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, the Church still needs to be held accountable for the problem of abuse.

Law’s successor as the archbishop of Boston, Seán Patrick O’Malley, is now the president of Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. In June 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People as a set of guidelines for addressing allegations of clergy abuse.

The Vatican also created a tribunal in June 2015 to judge bishops accused of covering up abuse, but the tribunal has yet to take action against a single bishop.

“Believe it or not, I’ve talked to a lot of priests, and the priests are also upset,” Rezendes said. “Priests believe they’ve been thrown under the bus, so to speak, while the bishops have gotten away with everything. The bishops, after all, are the one who cover up abuse in diocese after diocese after diocese, and very few have been held accountable.”

It was several years before the Spotlight team’s story became a critically acclaimed film.

“Years went by, nothing happened and we weren’t surprised because we never thought it would be a movie,” Rezendes said.

However, a novelist named David Mizner did write a narrative of the Spotlight team’s investigation for a case study for the Columbia University School of Journalism, and he said the topic would make a great movie.

“I said, ‘You’re crazy. All the big moments come when I’m sitting at my desk reading documents,’ ” Rezendes said.

Nevertheless, Mizner offered to bring the idea to producers Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin. Director Tom McCarthy, screenwriter Josh Singer and the production company Anonymous Content joined the project. McCarthy and Singer visited Boston to get to know the Spotlight team and its story, and after six months, they had put a script together.

Then came Mark Ruffalo, award-winning actor and political activist, who was enthusiastic about working on a film about the clergy abuse scandal at a time when Pope Francis was trying to introduce reform in the Church, Rezendes said.

“Mark Ruffalo is at the top of his game, and I hesitate to say that because I think he’s going to do more and more,” Rezendes said of the actor who played him on the big screen.

Soon after Ruffalo signed on to the film, so did Michael Keaton and the rest of cast.

“It was a movie about something really important. It wasn’t just a superhero comic action movie,” Rezendes said. “And I think they were also excited to play real people who were still alive and who they could study.”

Finally came the addition of Participant Media, a production company that works on films with a social purpose.

But Rezendes said he did not expect the film to reach the level of success that it did.

“Even as the movie was being shot, I thought to myself, ‘This’ll probably be a good movie. It’ll probably open in some art house and play for a couple of weeks and get some good reviews and then slip beneath the waves, never to be heard from again,’ ” he said.

But when McCarthy and Singer showed the real Spotlight team a rough cut of the film, the journalists were “stunned into silence,” Rezendes said.

“It was such an emotional experience to see ourselves portrayed on screen,” he said. “It was a very tough time in our lives. The work was very grueling. It was just a hard time, and I think we didn’t really want to go all the way back, and the movie took us all the way back.”

Rezendes said that although he’s thrilled by the honors that the film won, the impact the film had on abuse survivors was more important.

“Our work, I think, liberated thousands, maybe tens of thousands of survivors all over the world to say ‘Hey, this happened to me, and it was wrong,’ ” he said. “And the movie just amplified that. Because of the movie, there was another wave of survivors who came forward to tell their story.”

Rezendes compared “Spotlight” to “All the President’s Men,” a 1976 film about Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, two journalists who investigated the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post. He said both films were about local stories that exposed cover-ups.

“Without investigative reporting, democracy itself will not work,” Rezendes said. “It’s really only investigative reporting, when you think about it, that holds powerful institutions and powerful people accountable for what they do and what they say and provides citizens in a democracy the information they need in order to make decisions.”

Rezendes said he hopes “Spotlight” will inspire a new generation of journalists just as “All the President’s Men” did.

“I can’t guarantee you’ll make much of a living if you go into journalism right now,” he said. “But what I can guarantee you is if you take up the cause of investigative reporting, you may find yourself leading a life of meaning and purpose. And I think that’s worth a lot.”

Since 2006, the Stony Brook University School of Journalism has welcomed more than 60 prominent journalists to speak and answer questions about their careers and the big stories they pursued for the “My Life As” lecture series.

Katarina Delgado contributed to this story.

All photos Kevin Urgiles