Spot­light on the power of jour­nal­ism

The Bulletin - - Front Page - LACH­LAN BENNETT

THE movie Spot­light has en­gaged au­di­ences with its pow­er­ful por­trayal of a team of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists on The Bos­ton Globe that fought to ex­pose sys­tem­atic child sex­ual abuse within the Bos­ton Catholic dio­cese. The exposé has strong par­al­lels to the seven-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion by New­cas­tle Her­ald jour­nal­ist Joanne McCarthy of child sex­ual abuse by clergy in the Hunter re­gion of NSW, a pri­mary fac­tor in the es­tab­lish­ment of the cur­rent Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse.

‘ I think peo­ple will see Spot­light and they will ad­mire and ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that jour­nal­ists were pre­pared to fight’

Joanne McCarthy

TOM McCarthy’s movie Spot

light has gripped au­di­ences with its por­trayal of high­stakes in­ves­tiga­tive work into the cover-up of child abuse, but it has an Aus­tralian par­al­lel in the seven-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion by

New­cas­tle Her­ald jour­nal­ist Joanne McCarthy. The film tells the story of

The Bos­ton Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning in­ves­ti­ga­tion into sys­tem­atic child sex­ual abuse by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Bos­ton’s Catholic Church.

McCarthy’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ered wide­spread child sex­ual abuse per­pe­trated pri­mar­ily by the re­gion’s Catholic clergy and led to a NSW com­mis­sion of in­quiry. It was later cited by then prime min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard when an­nounc­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of the Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse.

Since its for­ma­tion three years ago, the Royal Com­mis­sion has re­ceived about 23,000 calls, 11,000 sub­mis­sions and more than 600 mat­ters have been re­ferred to po­lice across Aus­tralia.

McCarthy’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion also re­sulted in her be­ing awarded the Gold Walk­ley in 2013 for her body of work, pub­lished un­der the ban­ner of the

New­cas­tle Her­ald’s “Shine a Light cam­paign”.

Al­most 10 years after she be­gan re­port­ing on the is­sue, McCarthy and her for­mer ed­i­tor Chad Watson were in­vited to see

Spot­light with New­cas­tle’s Angli­can Bishop Greg Thomp­son.

Elected in 2013, Bishop Thomp­son is a sex abuse vic­tim him­self, and de­ter­mined to ex­pose any mis­deeds within his church.

It was a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to when McCarthy be­gan her in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­le­ga­tions of child sex­ual abuse in the Hunter and New­cas­tle area.

“Church hi­er­ar­chy and church ad­vo­cates, in­clud­ing in­di­vid­u­als fac­ing al­le­ga­tions, have all threat­ened to sue Joanne McCarthy and the New

cas­tle Her­ald,” says Watson, who is now New­cas­tle/Hunter group man­ag­ing ed­i­tor for Fair­fax Me­dia.

“But the news­pa­per has stood firmly be­hind her coura­geous work in the face of mount­ing crit­i­cism.

“If any­thing, le­gal threats and po­lit­i­cal ap­a­thy have spurred Joanne to greater jour­nal­is­tic heights in keep­ing church and other au­thor­i­ties ac­count­able.” A prom­i­nent theme of Spot

light is how the dom­i­nance and rev­er­ence of an in­sti­tu­tion like the church can foster a cul­ture of si­lence, where atroc­i­ties like sex­ual abuse are over­looked or ex­cused. This cul­ture perme- ates not only in churches and com­mu­ni­ties, but news­rooms.

McCarthy said she was sur­prised by the num­ber of shared ex­pe­ri­ences and sit­u­a­tions de­picted in Spot­light. “I think peo­ple will see Spot

light and they will ad­mire and ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that jour­nal­ists were pre­pared to fight,” she says.

The scene that most res­onated with her fea­tures an ex­change be­tween Jim Sul­li­van, a lawyer who helped set­tle sex­ual abuse cases for the arch­dio­cese, and leader of the Spot­light team Wal­ter Robin­son.

“I was just do­ing my job,” says Sul­li­van. “Yeah, you and ev­ery­one else,” replies Robin­son.

McCarthy has of­ten said this phrase. Lawyers, politi­cians, po­lice and the me­dia were all “just do­ing their job”, re­spond­ing to each in­di­vid­ual in­ci­dent but fail­ing to con­nect the dots to form the big­ger pic­ture.

“Within all of those dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional re­sponses, that’s where the poor vic­tims and sur­vivors and fam­i­lies were just left on their own,” she says.

Through­out her in­ves­ti­ga­tion, McCarthy has wrote more than 350 ar­ti­cles and opin­ion pieces, worked count­less ex­tra hours and in­ter­viewed around 200 vic­tims, in­clud­ing some re­veal­ing their abuse for the first time. She is proud of her work, but it hasn’t been with­out its im­pact.

“If you’re go­ing to do se­ri­ous work then you have to be re­ally se­ri­ous about look­ing after your­self, and you have to be will­ing to say no,” she says.

“I sold my house 18 months ago be­cause of the im­pact of all this stuff.

“When things were re­ally tough I would go for walks in the mid­dle of the night. My dog Lloyd would walk with me, and oc­ca­sion­ally my cat Puddy would try to join us as well.”

McCarthy jokes that swear­ing be­came one of her cop­ing mech­a­nisms.

She doesn’t hes­i­tate to use the odd pro­fan­ity to de­scribe some of the back­lash she has re­ceived over the years, in­clud­ing a po­lice re­port that de- scribed her as want­ing to be a vic­tim.

“You can’t be the vic­tim,” she stresses.

“You have to em­pathise with peo­ple, you have to be sup­port­ive and you have to do things step­ping out of your ob­jec­tive role to do work with child sex­ual abuse. You don’t have a choice. That’s the only way you’re able to do it, to en­gage and get peo­ple to trust you.

“But in do­ing that, there’s an in­cred­i­bly fine line where you can tip over the edge and just wal­low and be­come a vic­tim and that’s the thing that you can’t do.”

Just be­fore the Spot­light’s cred­its roll, ti­tle cards present a seem­ingly end­less list of towns and cities world­wide where ma­jor abuse scan­dals have been un­cov­ered. “New­cas­tle, Aus­tralia” ap­pears.

The cin­ema was al­most empty when McCarthy, Watson and Bishop Thomp­son saw the film. But even be­fore the lights were raised a woman was al­ready shak­ing McCarthy’s hand and call­ing her a hero­ine.

An­other ap­proached soon af­ter­wards and sim­ply mouthed “Thank you”.

In Fe­bru­ary, McCarthy (left) saw the movie with her for­mer ed­i­tor, Chad Watson, and the Angli­can Bishop of New­cas­tle, Greg Thomp­son.

Joanne McCarthy and her dog, Lloyd . . . a com­pan­ion on long night walks when things were tough. Pho­tos: Page 1 and 11 courtesy of New­cas­tle Her­ald

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