Bringing the Spotlight to Brandeis
Prof. Eileen McNamara (JOUR), former columnist for the Boston Globe, spoke about the story behind the film “Spotlight”
A major motion picture to be released this Friday has journalists and filmmakers hoping that it will restore the public’s interest in traditional avenues of reporting and investigative journalism. The 2015 film “Spotlight” portrays the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team’s investigation of the Massachusetts clergy sex abuse scandal, for which the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The clergy sex abuse scandal was a series of lawsuits and criminal sex abuse cases of minors by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe’s coverage of the scandal from early 2002 brought international attention to the Boston Archdiocese and further drew attention to the uncovering of nationwide clergy sex abuse of minors.
In light of the upcoming film release, the Justice sat down with Prof. Eileen McNamara (JOUR) a former reporter and columnist at the Boston Globe for nearly 30 years. In the film, actress Maureen Keiller depicts McNamara and her position as a columnist at the time of the Spotlight investigation.
McNamara attended the Boston premiere of “Spotlight” at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline on Wednesday evening along with members of the Spotlight team and the film’s cast. “It’s a love story to journalism,” McNamara said.
A native to Boston, McNamara was born in North Cambridge and had been determined to be a reporter since high school. McNamara served as editor of her high school paper, and it was then that she discovered her passion for journalism.
“The idea that you can ask impertinent questions and get away with it, the principal was really pretty exciting to me — because you weren’t your real self, you were your reporter-self. So it gave you a lot of leeway to be a little more impertinent than you might be allowed to be in your real life,” McNamara said.
McNamara earned her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in New York. As an undergraduate, due to a partnership between Barnard College and Columbia University, McNamara wrote for the Columbia Daily Spectator, a daily newspaper at Columbia University. After graduating from Barnard College, McNamara received a degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
McNamara started her career as a secretary for the Boston Globe in the 1970s with a Master’s degree from Columbia, which she described as “the role of women back in the early 70s.” From there, she worked for United Press International in Boston and returned to the Globe several years later as a night police reporter.
A reporter for nearly 20 years, McNamara explained that she began how you normally do in journalism — covering homicides and fires. Over time, McNamara gravitated toward writing about social issues. She wrote for the Globe Sunday Magazine and profiled imprisoned juvenile killers to bring attention to how juvenile justice is handled. She also wrote extensively about domestic violence to examine the way that women were mistreated once they go to court and how judges were not sympathetic to their situations.
In 1987, McNamara spent a year with a colleague traveling around the U.S. to write about abortion rights and state efforts to undermine Roe v Wade. In 1988, McNamara received a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University
“I think like most journalists, you look for stories among those people who don’t have a larger voice in society. And one of the things you can do as reporters is give voice to the voiceless,” McNamara said. “So, teenage killers are a pretty disenfranchised group; nobody’s going into the Department of Youth Services to try to unravel what happened in their lives to get them there. The same was true for a long time for women who were battered. What happened behind closed doors was considered personal — not a matter of public policy. It’s not anymore, in part because journalists spent the time to get inside of that issue. So I think that’s always our obligation, to go to the corners of the society where the spotlight is not focused.”
In 1995, McNamara began a 12-year career as a columnist for the Globe. McNamara explained that she didn’t think becoming a columnist was in her career path. “I was a reporter for twenty years, and I loved it. And I wasn’t really ready to be a columnist before that. Lots of people, I think, become columnists before they really have things to say,” she explained. “You know, I had covered the city, I had covered the state house, I had covered the United States Congress, by then. So I felt that I had enough experience that I might actually have something to say about public policy.”
In 1997, McNamara won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for a series of 10 columns on Massachusetts people and issues. In 2001, she authored a column about Father John Geoghan, a Roman Catholic priest accused of numerous accusations of sexual abuse while assigned to various parishes in Boston. Although it was not her first column about Father Geoghan, the column focused attention on the fact that the Archdiocese of Boston was aware of the abuse.
“The reason that I wrote about Father Geoghan in July of 2001 was that in a filing in his court case, the Archdiocese acknowledged that Cardinal Law had been warned about Geoghan’s actions with young boys, and Cardinal Law had been denying vociferously that he had any knowledge that Geoghan had an issue,” she said.
According to McNamara, the documents were not in the filing of Geoghan’s case — only letters from the Cardinal’s lawyers were there that indicated that he had been informed previously about Geoghan.
“None of us thought that was an isolated incident. How big was this ice burg that Geoghan was the tip of, and how would we ever know? Because the personnel records of the Archdiocese involving all of the priests, however many there might be, were all sealed, because [of] the courts’ deference to the Church — [we] had not a lot of public access to these records. So my column said nothing more than ‘we’ll never know, will we? Unless somebody challenges the seal and those records get opened,” McNamara explained.
The issue of clergy sex abuse had been covered by the Boston Globe and other news organizations before the Spotlight investigation began in early 2002. McNamara credits two of her colleagues at the Globe, Linda Matchan and Stephen Kurkjian, for their extensive coverage on Father James Porter from Fall River, Mass. in the early 90s. Porter was a Roman Catholic priest who convicted in 1993 on 41 counts of sexual assault against children in multiple parishes.
The Spotlight investigation saw the opportunity to connect the potential complicity of the church following Father Geoghan’s case. “Several other priests along the way had been covered but nobody put the dots together in the way that the Spotlight team did,” she said.
The newly appointed editor-in-chief of the Globe Martin (Marty) Baron was pivotal to the success of the Spotlight investigation.
“Marty Baron came in with fresh eyes, and the Catholic Church was not a sacred cow to him — he did not grow up in Boston. He came here from the Miami Herald. And he read my column, his first week on the job, and said, ‘Well, I don’t understand. Why don’t we challenge the seal, ‘we’ the Boston Globe?’ And we said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s a great idea, go do that.’ And he did. So sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes and the courage to know what’s in the public interest, and Marty Baron had that.” McNamara said.
McNamara also commends Judge Constance M. Sweeney, the judge who decided the case in which the Boston Globe challenged the Church’s seal. “To my mind, Constance Sweeney is the unsung hero of this story. The Spotlight team is getting a lot of attention now, of course, because there’s a movie, but the two real heroes of this story are Marty Baron, who had the courage and the foresight to challenge the seal on those records, and Constance Sweeney, who went against local tradition, and she did the right thing for the general public,” she said.
Martin Baron, now editor of the Washington Post, along with the entire Spotlight team, will be on campus next Tuesday for a panel discussion moderated by McNamara. The panel discussion will also feature Jon Albano, attorney for the Globe, and Josh Singer, screenwriter of the “Spotlight” film. The panel discussion will be held in the Wasserman Cinematheque screening room on Nov. 10 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
McNamara began teaching at Brandeis as an adjunct professor in 1995 and began teaching fulltime 12 years later. In addition to teaching, McNamara continues to write for WBUR’s commentary page and is in the process of writing a biography on Eunice Kennedy Shriver. McNamara has not left journalism; she explains that she now practices it in a different form.
After seeing the “Spotlight” film last week, McNamara said that a particular scene really stood out to her, as well as to several of her colleagues from the Globe.
“There’s a scene when all the trucks roll out of the garage at Morrissey Boulevard, one Boston Globe green truck after another, and I was sitting next to Dan Wasserman, who’s the cartoonist for the Globe, and several other people from the Globe who were there at the premiere, told me that they got misty — some of that’s nostalgia. Because everything’s moving online, someday there won’t be trucks rolling out, but it was an enormous commitment of time and money. The Globe spent more than a million dollars in legal fees to bring that story to light — that’s a huge commitment by a news organization. And I know how we felt in the audience — watching that movie — and it was proud,” McNamara said.
— Editor’s note: Brianna Majsiak is a student in Prof. McNamara’s JOUR 138B course, Contemporary World in Print.
An earlier version of this article stated that McNamara said "the personal records of the Archdiocese" and "because the court's indifference to the Church." McNamara in fact said, "the personnel records of the Archdiocese" and "because the court's deference to the Church."