Sacha Pfeiffer of ‘Spotlight’ fame questions whether church understands gravity of sexual abuse

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Actress Rachel McAdams, left, and journalist Sacha Pfeiffer accept the award for best acting ensemble for the movie “Spotlight” at the 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards. McAdams portrayed Pfeiffer, a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative reporting team, in the film that also won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

By Tim Funk

They were played by actors in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning movie that told the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered what would turn out to be a worldwide child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.

But on Thursday night in Charlotte, an audience of trial lawyers got to hear from the real Sacha Pfeiffer, whose reporting as a member of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team exposed a coverup by top church officials; the real Mitch Garabedian, an attorney who represented scores of families whose children were molested by priests; and the real Jim Scanlan, a survivor of child sex abuse whose story and words informed some of the film’s most memorable scenes.

The trio, who spoke at an event organized by the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, agreed on two things:

1. Fifteen years after the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series of stories, they said, the Catholic Church continues to resist calls to be more transparent, to hold bishops and priests more accountable and to focus more on ways to protect minors from clergy sex abuse and less on protecting the church’s public image.

“I hear a lot of good things from (Pope) Francis about protecting our kids,” said Scanlan, who works in financial services in Boston. “But a lot of it is just window-dressing.”

2. “Spotlight,” the movie, has made parents and others more vigilant about child safety, they said, and has made it easier for past victims of clergy abuse to come forward and tell their stories.

“This movie has certainly raised the awareness that you have to protect children in the presence of priests or any other adults,” said Garabedian, who was portrayed in the film by character actor Stanley Tucci.

Pfeiffer, who was played by actress Rachel McAdams, also said “Spotlight” is one of the few movies to offer an accurate picture of how journalists report a story.

At first, she was sure making a movie about the Spotlight team’s investigation was “a terrible idea. All they’re going to do is sensationalize and embarrass us. Think about most TV shows and movies about reporters. Someone is always sleeping with their source and talking in dark alleys. It’s just so unrealistic.”

But “Spotlight,” she said, not only got it right, but also found ways to make even some of the more tedious reporting chores suspenseful.

“It really conveyed our job: We knock on doors, we do research, we create databases,” she said. “Yet they used their film-making skill to make it exciting and watchable.”

She said the hours and hours the Spotlight team spent pouring over directories published over decades by the Boston archdiocese was turned into “a gripping three minutes” in the movie.

Pfeiffer said she and the other reporters and editors were invited to read drafts of the script, visit the movie set (in Toronto) and spend lots of time with the actors playing them.

“That time (with McAdams and the other actors) felt to me sort of social. We were having dinner with movie stars, we were taking walks with actors,” she said. “But when I saw the movie, I realized they were depicting mannerisms we had, including mannerisms we didn’t even know we had until our friends and family pointed them out. Then I realized all that time we spent with them was research for them. We were being observed and dissected and analyzed and I had no idea.”

McAdams, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, copied the way Pfeiffer plays with her thumb nail and tips her head back to knock her hair away from her eye.

A friendship formed during the making of the film: Pfeiffer said she and McAdams stay in touch, texting each other a few times a month.

Pfeiffer and the others agreed that child sex abuse is not limited to the Catholic church; recent stories in the Globe have focused on such abuse in elite private schools in New England.

But they said the Catholic Church is still resisting needed change. Scanlan and Garabedian pointed to reports out of Rome this month about an abuse victim’s resignation from a commission advising the pope on ways to protect children from clergy sex abuse.

Marie Collins, who was molested by a priest in Ireland when she was 13, said she was frustrated by the Vatican’s reluctance to implement the commission’s recommendations, including those approved by Pope Francis.

This refusal to act, she said in a statement to the National Catholic Reporter, “is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.”

David Hains, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, told the Observer when “Spotlight” was released in 2015 that the Globe series had caused the church to go through a painful self-examination and alter its ways.

“We have made changes in the formation of our priests (in seminaries),” Hains said. “And everybody who works or volunteers in our parishes now undergo background checks and have to take sexual abuse awareness training.”

But the speakers Thursday night called for more.

“To this day, I’m not sure the church really understands the gravity of sexual abuse, the damage it does,” said Pfeiffer, still a reporter at the Globe. “I think it needs to hold more bishops and other church officials accountable. Some priests have gone to jail, but hardly any people in supervisory roles have been held accountable in any way.”

Asked what he would advise the pope to do, Garabedian told the Observer he’d ask for more transparency.

“I’d ask the pope,” he said, “to release the names of all pedophile priests and all documents concerning pedophilia, in terms of who knew what in the Catholic Church so the victims can try to heal and society will be made aware of the evils of sexual abuse.”

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