Why The Movie “Spotlight” Makes Me Feel Guilty

I finally watched the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight tonight, and I had three strong emotional reactions: admiration for The Boston Globe’s investigative team, pride in the profession I labored in for more than four decades, and . . . guilt.

Why guilt?

The Providence Journal building

The Providence Journal building

One day in the 1970’s, I fielded a phone call in the newsroom of The Providence Journal. The caller was a local woman who told me that her ten-year-old son had been repeatedly molested by a Roman Catholic priest in one of the city’s parishes.

Later that week, I sat down with her and her son across from their kitchen table and listened to their story. It was both chilling and hard to accept. Her son said he wasn’t the only one—that two of his friends also had been abused. I asked the woman if she or the other parents had reported this to the Providence Police. She said they’d tried but that the police just scoffed and warned them that it was a crime to file a false police report.

As a journalist, I was skeptical by nature; but by the time I left them that evening, I believed what they’d told me was true. The next day, I consulted with an editor, one of the top guys who ran the paper. He labeled the story rubbish before I could even finish relating it.

I told him I understood why he was incredulous but that I thought it was worth looking into. He forbade it. No way the paper was going to slander a priest, he said. Besides, he added, even if the story were true, no one in Rhode Island (the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the union at the time) would believe it.

I argued. He got mad. If I didn’t let this go, he warned, I’d be looking for another line of work.

Me in the Providence Journal newsroom in the 1970s

Me in the Providence Journal newsroom in the 1970s

I was just a young reporter, eight years or so into a profession he’d been engaged in for a couple of decades; but I was not very good at respecting my elders or following their orders. Still, there was something else to consider. I had a wife, kids, and a mortgage I could barely afford. I needed that job. I loved it, too. And when that editor threatened to take it away, he was so red-faced and angry that I knew he meant it.

This all transpired about 25 years before The Globe blew the lid off the pedophile scandal and the unconscionable cover-up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Since the story broke, I’ve often thought about all the kids who were molested during the years when nobody, including me, was doing anything about it.

It seems unlikely that I was the only journalist who got a lead about a pedophile priest in the decades before Marty Baron walked into the top job at The Globe and began to set things right. There were so many damaged kids, so many angry parents. Surely some of them must have called their local papers and gotten the brush-off. That I probably wasn’t the only one who failed to follow up doesn’t make me feel even a teeny bit better.

Could The Providence Journal have tugged on the lead I got and unraveled the whole ugly mess in the 1970s? No way to know for sure, but I’m betting yes. We were good – the best small-city metro in the country in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Even then, I was a capable investigative reporter, good enough to get more than 100 people fired or indicted as a result of stories I wrote for The Journal during the first 13 years of my journalism career. Sometimes working alone, sometimes as part of a team, I exposed massive fraud in the state Medicaid system, corruption in the federal low-income housing program, wide-spread voter fraud in a mayoral election, third-world conditions and needless deaths at the state’s institution for the developmentally handicapped, physical and sexual abuse at the state’s institution for delinquent children . . . I even helped solve a murder. And I was far from the only one. In those days, the paper was rich with investigative talent.

Although we were a state paper, we didn’t always limit ourselves to Rhode Island stories. My expose of the first attempt to use the weather as a weapon of war — the U.S. military’s secret program of cloud seeding to wash out the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam — beat Seymour Hersh’s New York Times story by two weeks. And The Journal’s finest investigative reporter, the late Jack White, won a Pulitzer for reporting that President Richard Nixon had cheated on his federal income taxes.

So, yeah, maybe we could have done it. But we didn’t. I didn’t, to my everlasting regret.
I guess that’s why one line in the movie, delivered by Stanley Tucci in the role of a crusading Boston attorney named Mitchell Garabedian, hit me especially hard:

“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to abuse one.”

About Bruce DeSilva

Crime Novelist
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10 Responses to Why The Movie “Spotlight” Makes Me Feel Guilty

  1. sheila mcmullin says:

    I love Dennis O’Leary as Mulligan. I am not familiar enough with all of the actor’s work to form intelligent opinions on your other choices. I would rethink Kevin Bacon, but, I fear that might be because his acting in “Sleepers” was so good that it haunts me to this day. I love your editor!!

  2. anotherjess says:

    Great post.

  3. Rudolph Hempe says:

    Well done, Charlie

  4. JAYoung says:

    I worked in Maine during the same period and recall hearing reports about individual priests long before The Boston Globe stepped up to bat on the much-wider conspiracy. Since half our subscriber base was Catholic the story was going nowhere with our management and I don’t recall how hard the reporting staff pushed for it.
    I do remember we had a nickname for the facts we feared to print: The Greatest Story Never Told.

  5. ClevelandGirl says:

    You might feel guilty as a reporter, and you should, though I understand your need for self-preservation in your young career, but imagine the guilt dumped on abuse victims themselves for either not reporting or not being believed. *Every* child abused after you were becomes your responsibility. I was assaulted by a priest at a CYO camp just before first grade. I was so young, I didn’t understand what happened as a sexual assault, just being grabbed, restrained, and hands going under my clothes, then it stopping (probably someone happened by). My aunt and uncle were this new priest’s “groupies”, and I even ate dinner with this slime at their dinner table while on a sleepover to hang with my cousins about six years later. It was years later that memories surfaced and I was able to put it all together. By that time, the priest was dead. I learned that he worked with “youth” at his later assignment as a pastor — I can’t help thinking about how many “youth” he assaulted more successfully than what he did to me years before.

    In addition, I was sexually assaulted by the nun who taught my first grade class. I was smart, left-handed, female, and I had a *weak bladder*. She engaged in nonconsensual BDSM urophilic sexual assault, also referred to as “omorashi” in Japanese, by preventing me from using the restroom until I pissed myself at my desk, soaking my uniform, shoes, chair, and the floor around me, then she used her assault to humiliate me. She performed this sexual assault in front of 35 other people, a *public* attack. This happened several times until my parents took me off of recess milk so that I wouldn’t “bother” the nun with the need to urinate, plus the nun was instructed to let me use the restroom if I asked. This type of sexual assault is slick because the perpetrator need not touch the victim at all to get the kind of reaction (public urination) that gets the perpetrator off. I didn’t understand this as a sexual assault until I read the reports out of Ireland about how children there were abused and how the nuns used children’s bodily functions as a fetishistic thrill. So, I knew about this nun’s sexual abuse for 45 years before I could say anything clear about it.

    I never spoke out when I was abused because I didn’t understand that this is what was happening to me. I was too young and didn’t have the words or concepts. I’ve been speaking out about the priest’s assault on me for about 25 years now, in every venue possible, and I’ve been speaking out about what the nun did to me for the last six years, from the time I understood that what she did to me was also sexual assault. I can’t do anything about everyone who was abused after me by these people, but at least I can describe, warn, and educate.

  6. Jack Thomas says:

    Bruce: Every reporter, myself included, has seen something he should have reported, but failed to do so. Writing this took courage on your part, and in that sense, you honor the profession. Thank you. Jack Thomas

  7. Pingback: TGIF: 21 Things To Know About Rhode Island Politics & Media - Rhode Island Public Radio - Rhode Island Info

  8. Caroline Donnelly says:

    Please wxplore this website . Same story differnt crime. http://www.vaxxedthemovie.com/
    In California over 1000 parents testified that this happened to our child in the sb277 (?) hearings. They didn’t want to know and labeled us anti vax instead of anti Catholic even though person after Perseon stated our child would have been safe had we not started out pro vax and in fact we want pro safe vax. Please listen and learn the facts and be a voice to redeem yourself.

  9. You had no proof. The Catholic church could have exposed their rampant child rape if they were “God’s church”. They aren’t. They’re God’s frauds.

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