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Boston Clergy Sex Abuse Under 'Spotlight' Anew


Over the last decade, allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have surfaced everywhere from Canada to Ireland to Tanzania. But it's the scandal that erupted at the Boston Archdiocese in the early 2000s that was the watershed moment. The new movie "Spotlight" reveals how The Boston Globe's investigative team uncovered that story and how that newsroom wrangled over how to prove the abuse allegations were part of a wider cover-up by the church.


LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron) I think that's the bigger story.

RACHEL MCADAMS: (As Sacha Pfeiffer) But the numbers clearly indicate that there were senior clergy involved.

SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron) That's all they do - indicate.

MARK RUFFALO: (As Mike Rezendes) But are you telling me that if we run a story with 50 pedophile priests in Boston...

SCHREIBER: (As Marty Baron) Mike, we'll get into the same catfight you got into on Porter which made a lot of noise but changed things not one bit. We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests.

CORNISH: The movie stars the actors Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams. Her role is based on the life of our next guest, reporter Sacha Pfeiffer. She was part of The Boston Globe's investigative unit known as spotlight. She knocked on doors, met with victims and fought with lawyers. Her work helped win the paper a Pulitzer Prize. I asked Sacha Pfeiffer about the early days of the reporting.

SACHA PFEIFFER: The first victim I ever talked to - his name was Arthur Austin, and I - he's always been in public. I don't think he'd mind me sharing that. And I will never forget that he basically cried through our entire conversation. We were sitting in a restaurant, and I remember the waitress very uncomfortable, not sure whether she should come over. And that was the first of many men who cried during conversations.

And I think what's important to remember is that something traumatic happened to these people, usually in their adolescence. Usually they were men. And it kind of stopped them in time. I mean, it's very hard to recover from sexual abuse, especially when it's by a priest. And that made me very angry over time. And I've often said that anger can be a motivator, and that made us want to work harder on this story.

CORNISH: Now, you were the only woman on the Spotlight team. And as you mentioned, many of the people who came forward with allegations were men. What kind of role do you think that played? What kind of difference was there in how maybe victims spoke with you? I mean, it's not easy to talk about abuse in the first place. Doing it with someone from the opposite gender - I can't imagine that being any easier.

PFEIFFER: Yeah, no. I think it was incredibly hard for them. But I do think the one advantage my gender brought to this project is that a lot of these men were very embarrassed, very ashamed, very humiliated by something that had happened decades earlier that they were still trying to understand. And I believe that it was easier for them to talk to a woman about it. And as a result, I ended up talking to huge numbers of victims. And I think talking to a female was somehow more comforting or easier to share very intimate things.

CORNISH: There's a scene in the movie where the actress Rachel McAdams, who portrays you - she's talking with a survivor of abuse, I think, in a coffee shop, and she starts asking for specifics. And she says, you know, just using the word molested isn't good enough. Did that happen?

PFEIFFER: Yes. I was a huge advocate of that point. I mean, on one hand, we tried to make sure that our writing wasn't salacious, wasn't overly graphic. But if we just said that boys were molested, that's such a sanitized term. And you know, there's a whole range of horrors of what molest can mean. And sometimes that meant that people were raped. And so we had to sort of gently talk to people and get them to share some difficult details so that we had a sense of how criminal what occurred may have been.

CORNISH: You know, one of, I think, the most stirring moments in the film is when you're depicted as knocking on the door of a priest accused of abusing children, and he actually answers. And this comes after a lot of time of having a lot of doors closed in your face - right? - reporting time.

PFEIFFER: Right, right.

CORNISH: Can you tell us about that moment? What happened in real life?

PFEIFFER: The first lesson there, I think, even for me as a reporter, was the value of the door knock. You know, it can be easy to get trapped at your desk and do everything by telephone. But sometimes when you make that visit to someone's house and knock on the door, it's unbelievable what you'll get. And I think what was striking to me about that is that on paper, many of these priests looked like monsters. But then when that one answered the door, there's this seemingly kindly-looking old man who gives this twisted kind of warped rationalization for why he did what he did. And that's a reminder of just how disturbed a lot of these men were, and it helps explain, to some degree, why they did what they did. They just weren't completely stable.

CORNISH: What's it like for you now, after all that work, after all this time, to see this investigation on the big screen, to see this story being told to a big mainstream audience?

PFEIFFER: Well, first, we never, ever thought this would become a movie, and we never thought it could actually make an interesting movie. And I think that one of the things that really speaks to the skill of the filmmaker and the director is that they captured the authenticity of what we do. I mean, journalism can sometimes be tedious and monotonous, and there can be delays. And they captured all that.

So for example, there's a database we built, depicted in the movie, that, in real life, was three weeks of drudgery, of spreadsheet drudgery. And somehow, they made it a two, three-minute montage of riveting movie. So I love that they really captured what we do. They didn't do stereotypes or caricatures of newsrooms as we often see on TV and movies. They captured it, but they also made it exciting and engrossing. And I think we feel very proud of that.

CORNISH: Yeah, you might be the first journalist depicted - woman journalist depicted who doesn't somehow have a love affair over the course of the reporting project.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) Exactly.

CORNISH: Maybe this reporting project was a little too depressing for that.

PFEIFFER: Exactly. And by the way, it's the least glamorous Rachel McAdams has ever looked in her life. She wears baggy khakis and, you know, loose, shapeless blouses. And she looked - she dressed exactly like I did, and I love that they didn't feel like they had to glamorize her up for the job.

CORNISH: What was it like visiting the set?

PFEIFFER: So one of the most amazing things about this experience is that the director, Tom McCarthy, the writer, Josh Singer, and all the actors welcomed us to review the script as they wrote it and changed it, to come to the set, both this filming in Boston and in Toronto where they built a replica Globe newsroom. And whatever tips or advice or suggestions we gave them, they took.

There was one point where I walked into a replica office in Toronto, and it looked absolutely perfect except that the telephone by my computer was positioned in such a way that Rachel wouldn't have been able to talk and type at the same time. And as a reporter, you have to do that. And when I pointed it out, they changed the set.

When we finally saw the movie, we realized that all the time we spent with our actors last summer in which we were having dinners and taking walks and having conversations - they weren't just dinner and walks and conversations. They were research projects for our actors. You know, they were homework. We now know that they were studying us because in the movie, they are depicting mannerisms that we didn't even know we had. And that was just a remarkable thing to watch about the acting process.

CORNISH: It must be so strange since as a journalist, you're usually observing other people.

PFEIFFER: Oh, yeah.

CORNISH: Like, you're not used to being watched in any way.

PFEIFFER: Oh, yeah. And it was very strange to be asked such personal, probing questions like, how did this affect your marriage? And I would think, oh, that's a very uncomfortable question. But then we do that to people all the time, so the tables were turned. And it was a taste of our own medicine and probably a good one. And I hope it will all make us better reporters in the future.

CORNISH: Well, Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you so much for talking with us and telling us a little bit about the story behind this film.

PFEIFFER: Thank you so much for having me on.

CORNISH: Sacha Pfeiffer - she's a Boston Globe reporter who was part of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal of sexual abuse by priests. Their story is now told in the feature film "Spotlight." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.