Spotlight movie brings issue of credit to fore

Screenwriters paid visit to ex-Phoenix writer

THE TWO SCREENWRITERS of Spotlight, the upcoming movie about the Boston Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, paid a visit to a former reporter for the now-defunct Boston Phoenix as they were doing research on the screenplay.

Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, who is also the director of the movie, met with Kristen Lombardi in New York City, where she works as an investigative reporter for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. The screenwriters asked her about her investigative work on the priest story, including whether she felt she deserved some sort of recognition from the Globe.

“I have conflicting thoughts,” Lombardi says in an interview with CommonWealth. “I was glad that the Globe got the story out as a result of breaking the seal on the court records.  And once they lifted the seal, all kinds of other priests were implicated as a result.  And I didn’t do any of that and I feel like the Globe rightfully deserves the Pulitzer for that.”

Yet Lombardi, whose first story on clergy sex abuse dealt with pedophile priest John Geoghan, believes her work at the Phoenix should have garnered some recognition from the Globe. “It doesn’t take very much to give credit where credit is due and they didn’t do it and they still refuse to do it, even though they won the Pulitzer, even though they’re getting a movie made about them,” she says. “There’s an institutional arrogance at the Globe that prevented them from doing it.”

Neither McCarthy nor Singer would comment about their visit with Lombardi or whether any mention of her will make it into the movie.

Andrew Walsh, who has written about media coverage of priest pedophilia for Religion in the News, a magazine published by Trinity College in Hartford, says there are no Marquess of Queensberry rules in journalism for assigning credit for breaking a story first.

“I don’t blame the Globe particularly for not saying Lombardi broke the Geoghan story, although she got there first,” he says. “Journalism is a rough-and-tumble, highly competitive world.  It’s a scrum game. People try to cut each other out.”

Mark Jurkowitz, who was the Globe media reporter at the time of the Spotlight series and prior to that a media critic at the Phoenix, says he thinks it would have been appropriate for the Globe to recognize Lombardi’s work at least once, although he says the Globe went on “to own the church scandal story.”

But Jurkowitz, who now owns a small newspaper in North Carolina, says it’s not uncommon in journalism for one publication not to recognize the work of another. “For better or for worse, I think that news organizations historically have the default attitude, ‘If we don’t have to credit someone else’s work, we won’t,’” he says.

Jurkowitz also says giving credit where credit is due is often difficult because few stories “spring organically” from one news organization. “There are scattered seeds and sprouts in many cases that have appeared earlier,” he says. “And, really, then it becomes a judgment call about what is the lineage, the chain of custody of ownership of the story.”

In fact, the Globe, the Boston Herald, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy, and the Associated Press all wrote stories about Geoghan long before Lombardi began her work for the Phoenix. Many of those stories appeared on page one of the publications. Lombardi didn’t mention those stories in her original piece, although she did cite a Herald story that contained a quote from Cardinal Bernard Law.

A few days after the Globe Spotlight Team’s introductory article appeared, the Phoenix ran a full-page ad in its pages proclaiming, “Some papers lead. Other papers follow,” with accompanying photos of the front pages of the two papers carrying the pedophilia stories. The original Phoenix story was dated March 23, 2001; the original Spotlight story was dated January 6, 2002.

Lombardi wrote three other long investigative pieces and four short pieces on priest pedophilia in 2001. The Phoenix also editorialized twice on the subject.

Lombardi’s stories were based on interviews with victims who were suing the Catholic Church and the available court records. The Globe, at the direction of then-editor Martin Baron, took the story to a new level by setting out in September 2001 to persuade the court to unseal a much more extensive set of records that parties to the various cases had agreed should not be released to the public. Two months later, the court sided with the Globe, a decision that enabled the Globe to document how the church had shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish.

The Globe’s work resulted in the identification of many pedophile priests and the ousting of Cardinal Law. The work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and reverberated well beyond the borders of Massachusetts, launching a national and international debate on the church’s handling of priest pedophilia.

Baron, who is now the executive editor at the Washington Post, says in an email that the issue of going to court to unseal the documents was discussed on his first day at the Globe in 2001. Asked several other questions, including whether other reporters on the story deserve some recognition, Baron says: “I don’t really have anything else to say.”

Walter Robinson, who headed the Spotlight Team during the investigation of the Catholic Church, declined comment.

The movie’s star-studded cast includes Liev Schreiber as Baron, Michael Keaton as Robinson, and Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Gene Amoroso as Spotlight reporters Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Steve Kurkjian. The movie is slated to hit the big screen in the fall.

Lombardi says she has gotten “big footed” before by the major media, but at the end of the day, she says she prefers to look at the results of the reporting.

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“Big media outlets have picked up on lots of stories that I’ve done as if they’ve just discovered it and nobody else had done anything before,” she says. “When in reality I did a lot of the work that got the issue noticed.  So I guess I just have kind of decided that it’s more important that reform occurs, which is ultimately what matters, than it is for me to get credit.”