I’m an out­sider who fights

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE STEPHEN APPLEBAUM

ONE OF the hottest con­tenders for the Best Pic­ture Os­car is Spot­light, which tells the pow­er­ful, true story of how the epony­mous team of in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters at the Bos­ton Globe news­pa­per ex­posed a decades-long cover-up by the Catholic Church to pro­tect priests guilty of sex­u­ally abus­ing chil­dren.

That the in­ves­ti­ga­tion took place at all is cred­ited to the Globe’s first Jewish editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber in the film), who, on his first day at the pa­per, saw a story that he felt needed to be pur­sued.

Baron had come from the Mi­ami Her­ald and was an un­usual ap­point­ment. “The news­pa­per had been ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing peo­ple who have a strong con­nec­tion to Bos­ton be in charge of it,” he tells me from his of­fice at the Wash­ing­ton Post, where he is now ex­ec­u­tive editor, “and I think the en­tire com­mu­nity was ac­cus­tomed to that as well. I had spent al­most no time in the city and so I was la­belled an out­sider — and made to feel like an out­sider.”

While be­ing “some­what the ob­ject of wari­ness” cre­ated dis­com­fort, he had the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to “see things through fresh eyes”, he sug­gests. “I didn’t have any at­tach­ments to the com­mu­nity at all. I had no al­le­giances, no obli­ga­tions as a re­sult of friend­ship, noth­ing like that. So I think that al­lowed me to ap­proach things with some level of dis­tance and ob­jec­tiv­ity.”

Mi­ami had been a place where “all kinds of crazy things hap­pen” and he didn’t know if Bos­ton would be “as wild and woolly”. How­ever, that quickly changed.

The day be­fore he started work, the Globe ran a story by colum­nist Eileen McNa­mara about a priest, John Geoghan, who’d been ac­cused of abus­ing 80 chil­dren. In it, a lawyer for the plain­tiff claimed that Car­di­nal Law, the Arch­bishop of Bos­ton, knew of the abuse, and yet had al­lowed the priest to be re­as­signed to dif­fer­ent parishes.

“The re­sponse from the Church, via its lawyer, was that th­ese were ir­re­spon­si­ble, base­less charges,” says Baron. “So you had du­elling com­men­taries about th­ese se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions.”

What in­trigued him most was that McNa­mara said the truth may never be known, be­cause the in­ter­nal Church doc­u­ments that might re­veal it were un­der seal and sub­ject to a con­fi­den­tial­ity or­der.

At his first edi­to­rial meet­ing, the fol­low­ing day, Baron pro­posed try­ing to get the seal lifted through le­gal chan­nels. He then asked the pa­per’s Spot­light team of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists to ex­plore whether Geoghan rep­re­sented a big­ger prob­lem.

The probe would bring the re­porters and the pa­per up against the Catholic Church, whose build­ings dom­i­nate the Bos­ton sky­line in the work­ing-class ar­eas where most vic­tims came from, phys­i­cally il­lus­trat­ing its in­flu­ence over the life of the city. Baron, how­ever, is not a man to be cowed.

As the editor of his high school news­pa­per in Florida, he re­fused to back down over a story that up­set the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Since then, as well as the Catholic Church, he has stood up to the White House over sto­ries about lapses in Se­cret Ser­vice cov­er­age for the pres­i­dent, and re­sisted pres­sure not to pub­lish con­fi­den­tial Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency memos leaked by Ed­ward Snow­den.

Nei­ther of his par­ents, who em­i­grated from Is­rael to the United States in the 1950s, was in jour­nal­ism. But they had a keen in­ter­est in news about the pub­lic affairs of their adopted home. “As a mat­ter of rou­tine in our house­hold, we’d read a lo­cal news­pa­per and watch the tele­vi­sion news”. And this clearly rubbed off on him.

At school, he was aware of “peo­ple of a cer­tain sta­tus in life who felt that they were en­ti­tled and priv­i­leged”, and says: “I think I’ve al­ways been con­scious of elites in so­ci­ety, and very leery of elites, frankly.”

To­day, he sees it as a “spe­cial obli­ga­tion of the news me­dia to hold pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als, pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions, ac­count­able. Be­cause my view is if we don’t do it, no­body else will.”

As a re­sult of the movie, peo­ple have asked him why he went af­ter the Catholic Church. The ques­tion ir­ri­tates him. “I didn’t de­cide to take on the Catholic Church,” he says firmly. “I de­cided to pur­sue a story that was in front of us. It was a jour­nal­is­tic im­pulse. . . It be­came ap­par­ent to me, fairly quickly, that we had not pur­sued ev­ery pos­si­ble chan­nel for get­ting at the truth. And that’s my job.”

How­ever, he did in­sist that they wouldn’t pub­lish un­til they had ev­i­dence of in­sti­tu­tional mal­prac­tice. Sim­ply re­port­ing how many priests were in­volved would have struck peo­ple as sen­sa­tional, he in­sists. For him, the more pow­er­ful ques­tions con­cerned why they had been al­lowed to get away with the abuse for so long.

The facts un­cov­ered were so dam­ag­ing and so shock­ing that they didn’t need to be sen­sa­tion­alised or con­veyed with emo­tive lan­guage.

Baron and his team were ex­pect­ing “blow­back” when the first part of their (ul­ti­mately Pulitzer-win­ning) se­ries of re­ports ran in 2002. “We ac­tu­ally stepped up on the switch­board be­cause we were ex­pect­ing a lot of crit­i­cism, and peo­ple to call and com­plain and ac­cuse us of be­ing an­tiCatholic.” In­stead, as por­trayed in the film, “there was an eerie si­lence”.

“I think there was a strong feel­ing of be­trayal amongst Catholics in Bos­ton,” of­fers Baron, “and they were able to feel that sense of be­trayal es­pe­cially acutely be­cause we were able to put in front of them the ac­tual in­ter­nal Church doc­u­ments that showed how the Church had de­ceived, had ob­structed, and had ig­nored this prob­lem for such a long pe­riod of time.”

The pain that had been in­flicted on chil­dren over many years was fi­nally laid bare. Sur­vivors now came for­ward in huge num­bers to re­late their sto­ries, achiev­ing what Baron sees as an­other key part of the “jour­nal­is­tic mis­sion” — break­ing the si­lence.

“I do think that we have to be es­pe­cially at­ten­tive to peo­ple who are at the mar­gins of our so­ci­ety, who don’t have power, and who have not been given a voice,” he says.

“One of the great lessons of this movie is that peo­ple who have been left voice­less can have very pow­er­ful things to say, and it’s im­por­tant that we lis­ten to what they have to say. And at times act on it.”

The mes­sage could hardly be more timely.

‘Spot­light’ is on gen­eral re­lease

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

Fear­less: Liev Schreiber stars as editor Marty Baron in and, below left, with the real Baron

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