Reporter takes unexpected turn in the 'Spotlight'

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Michael Rezendes is accustomed to asking questions. It’s at the heart of his job as an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe.

He isn’t at ease when “the shoe is on the other foot,” Rezendes acknowledged during a compelling presentation at the annual convention of the Michigan Press Association two weeks ago in Lansing.
The comment was laced in irony for a shoe-leather journalist who was part of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning team at The Globe that revealed the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, specifically that in the Boston Archdiocese.

His work, and that of three other members of The Globe’s Spotlight Team, served as the basis for the 2015 Academy Award winning movie Spotlight starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Mark Ruffalo.

Ruffalo, whose film credits include his portrayal of Bruce Banner/the Hulk in the movie The Avengers and its sequel, decided to “interview” Rezendes before beginning work on Spotlight in an effort to “get to know” the background and mindset of the reporter.

“Suffice to say, he put me in somewhat of an uncomfortable situation as he explored my personal background and motivations for becoming a journalist,” Rezendes said at the MPA event. “I wasn’t accustomed to being in that seat.”

Rezendes, a former staff writer at The Washington Post, has made a career out of putting various people on the hot seat, earning two other Pulitzer Prize nominations for his work with The Globe’s Spotlight Team. In short, he is the consummate pro, a journalist with a dogged determination to unearth the truth.

Which may explain his early doubts that a movie would ever be made of the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for the past 15 years. The subject, after all, is horrific and not one that filmmakers were lining up to feature on the silver screen.

But film writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer took a flyer on the project, reportedly completing a script in June 2013, more than two years before the movie made it to theaters nationwide.

Writing the script was “one thing,” Rezendes said, but “finding the money to produce” the film was a more daunting task for the writers. Yet, several well-heeled “angels” appeared come crunch time, bankrolling a film that eventually would win Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

The film, in riveting detail, tells the story of how The Spotlight Team uncovered decades of child sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy in Boston, a scandal that eventually ensnared some 250 priests. The investigation was spawned by a Globe column in 2001 that reported on a series of lawsuits involving a priest accused of sexual abuse.

The movie-makers, said Rezendes, “did justice” to the story, which continues to cast a pall on a church that is still dealing with how to respond to a sordid chapter in its past.

For Rezendes, that past returned to the present tense last December when news of Cardinal Bernard Law’s death was reported. Cardinal Law, who became the symbol of the clergy abuse scandal, was the archbishop of Boston during the many years of Catholic shame. His death, wrote Rezendes in a Globe column on December 20, unleashed a “torrent of memories,” most of the decidedly tragic kind.

“But mostly, I thought about the victims of the abusive priests Law had shuffled from parish to parish, as he hid their crimes and placed protecting the church high above his responsibility to safeguard children who had trusted their priests as caring father figures and representatives of God,” Rezendes wrote.

Now, as he reflects on his role in the Pulitzer Prize winning effort, Rezendes urged those in the MPA audience May 10 to “take up the fight” for watchdog reporting, pointing to its “power to spur” positive change.

“It can be long, tedious, and exhausting work, but it has become increasingly important in this age when accountability is at stake,” Rezendes said.

And democracy is at risk.