Editorial: Film ‘Spotlight’ Film story of betrayal that should not be forgotten

Last modified: Friday, November 27, 2015

One of the biggest stories of 2002 is news again to millions thanks to Hollywood. While movie studios usually aim to distract viewers, sometimes their films contain uncomfortable truths.

The new movie “Spotlight” recounts one of them: the Catholic church’s long cover-up of clergy sexual abuse. It tells the story of the Boston Globe investigation that revealed how the Archdiocese of Boston protected priests who molested children, valuing its reputation over their safety.

Thanks to the newspaper’s commitment to telling this story, it is far less likely today that a parish priest, or any religious leader, could victimize a child and expect church officials to conceal his conduct. Hard as it is to believe, that’s what went on within the Catholic church for decades — and not just in Boston or Massachusetts.

Far more people will see “Spotlight” than read the Globe series. That is a blessing, because this story’s fundamental message — that power corrupts — should be heard by all.

The movie presents the awful facts the newspaper unearthed. Viewers learn of an institution that coddled priests to the detriment of children. They witness the ruinous impact this had on families who believed in the church and its priests, only to see that faith violated. The Globe had documented the case of a mother who invited a priest into her home, where he secretly molested her three sons in their beds. The paper’s coverage was full of heart-breaking accounts of trust betrayed.

And viewers may come, as they watch this story unfold, to appreciate the challenge the Globe team faced as its inquiry took on one of Boston’s most trusted institutions. Marty Baron, the Globe editor at the time, has said he read a column in his own paper about a priest accused of abuse — by 130 people. Despite that alarming number, the court record had been sealed. That puzzled Baron and he asked his staff to challenge it.

On another front, the paper’s Spotlight team built a database of 900 active and retired priests by paging through 18 years worth of church directories. Reporters focused on priests who had been relocated or put on sick leave. Slowly, they documented efforts by church leaders to move abusive priests into hiding.

By the end of 2002, more than a dozen articles into the series, the archdiocese faced 500 allegations of clergy abuse and civil claims that legal experts said could cost it $100 million. By year’s end, with the archdiocese facing bankruptcy, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned.

From there, this scandal ricocheted through Catholic dioceses around the country and world — and remains a top issue facing Pope Francis.

John Stobierski, a Catholic who grew up in South Deerfield, is one of those who went to see “Spotlight” at a local theater. As a story in the Gazette detailed this week, this wasn’t his first exposure to the scandal.

As a lawyer, Stobierski has represented people molested by priests in western Massachusetts, handling some 80 civil lawsuits that secured settlements of more than $10 million. He had been working with families affected by clergy abuse for a decade when the Globe’s series began Jan. 6, 2002. The paper created a confidential call-in line for people who had suffered abuse to tell their stories.

The Spotlight team’s work made it impossible for the church to continue to deflect molestation complaints. It brought dozens of families to Stobierski’s office in Greenfield and accelerated the quest for justice by individuals and families who’d been living with shame and psychic injury. “Looking back on it, I don’t know how I did it,” he told reporter Diane Broncaccio of The Recorder. “I was almost in a state of shock. I heard stories of abuse victims that were sickening.”

Years before, he’d begun to represent families who said their children were sexually abused by the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne of Shelburne Falls. That priest had been arrested in 1991 on charges of molesting three boys. He pled guilty, was put on probation and ordered to receive treatment for sex offenders at a Maryland hospital. The judge who handled the case faulted Lavigne for failing his ministry yet was dismissive about the case’s significance as he handed out the light sentence.

But Lavigne’s wrongdoing ran deeper. Two years after his guilty plea, Stobierski won a $1.4 million settlement on behalf of 17 men who said the same priest had abused them when they were children. Others kept coming forward. The lawyer brought actions on behalf of families against Richard F. Meehan and Alfred Graves, both of whom served in the region and have since been defrocked.

“There were boys who were shared by priests — a family” of brothers, Stobierski said. “It was as gross as the Lavigne (allegations). It involved taking the boys on camping trips.”

Stobierski’s career changed the day the Globe’s Spotlight series began with this headline: “Church allowed abuse by priest for years.” Stobierski recalls that it was Epiphany Sunday. As a Catholic, getting this news that day “had kind of religious connotations.” He began to realize how deep the problem went. And now moviegoers around the world, understanding the same thing, may give complaints of abuse, wherever they emerge, the attention they deserve.


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