Last night I sat on the couch, turned on a rented copy of “Spotlight” and thought of my Uncle Jimmy.
Wish he’d been there to watch with me.
We didn’t talk much about religion at family gatherings when I was growing up. But when we did, it was loud.
The debate I remember most: the one about the case of the Rev. James Porter.
Porter, who died in 2005, spent more than decade in jail for abusing dozens of children. He admitted abusing as many as 100 kids, most from the diocese of Fall River, about an hour south of Boston.
In the early 1990s, however, Porter’s case was dismissed as “aberrant,” as Cardinal Bernard Law told the Boston Globe in 1992.
Not long after news of Porter’s misdeeds broke in the early 1990s, I sat at the table in my grandmother’s house, listening to an angry debate over the story. My uncle claimed that all the accusations against Porter were exaggerations.
It’s all lies, my uncle told us. The bishop said so.
Some of my other relatives were skeptical. My uncle believed that the church would never lie to him. But his faith in the church and the bishop was betrayed.
That changed when the Globe’s Spotlight team began to investigate cases of abuse in Boston. They used all the tools of investigative journalism — court documents, interviews with victims, passionate appeals to sources, spreadsheets and even old church directories — to show that Law and other church leaders were lying. That abuse was all too common. And that church leaders covered it up.
Their reporting earned the Pulitzer Prize, and now, a best picture Oscar. It also, eventually, earned the respect of the Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston.
“By providing in-depth reporting on the history of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the media led the Church to acknowledge the crimes and sins of its personnel and to begin to address its failings, the harm done to victims and their families and the needs of survivors, the cardinal told Boston Pilot, the archdiocese’s newspaper.
The triumph of “Spotlight” has led to much rejoicing by journalists. That’s especially true for religion reporters.
We’ve always known that religion news — affectionately known as the “God beat” — is the best beat in the news business. Now the whole world knows, too.
Still, the success of “Spotlight” has left me worried that the film’s triumph might be fleeting; that the relentless, passionate journalism that fueled Spotlight could be lost.
We all love “Spotlight” the movie.
But not many newspapers have the resources or the expertise to do the kind of investigative reporting that made the story come to life. And even fewer have the kind of expertise that made the Spotlight team’s investigation stick.
A bit of explanation.
“Spotlight,” despite its Oscar, doesn’t tell the whole story.
Not long after the first set of stories ran in early 2002, then-Globe religion reporter Michael Paulson joined the Spotlight team. His expertise about the Catholic Church proved essential, Spotlight editor Walter Robinson later said.
“One of the things that made our coverage so much more distinctive than just being investigative revelations was Mike’s ability to step back and bring the whole Church into the context of the story,” Robinson said an interview about the Globe’s Pulitzer for the Spotlight abuse project.
Providing context is exactly what religion writers do. We know that both the “religion” part and the “news” part of religion news matter.
Covering religion isn’t primarily writing feel good-features about the holidays for what used to be called the “church page,” or covering theological disputes like whether heaven or hell exists, or even writing about what pastor endorses which candidate.
It’s bigger than that. Religion news is real news about people’s families, their souls, and the power of their faith — a power institutions can harness for good or ill. It’s the kind of news that needs both the power of investigative reporters and the knowledge of God-beat pros.
But life on the religion beat is uncertain these days.
While there are more people writing about religion, and enormous interest in the topic, there are fewer full-time pros on the beat, especially at newspapers. Many of those newspapers have dropped the religion beat or farmed it out to freelancers. Many religion writers cover a second beat at the same time.
Meanwhile, the job of covering the God beat has become more difficult.
American religion is changing before our eyes. Old denominations are fading, new traditions are taking their place. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are reinventing themselves as our formerly mostly-white Christian nation becomes increasingly diverse. Old institutions are closing as new ones take their place.
I worry that there are fewer God-beat pros at news organizations who can help lend context that readers need to understand this new world: fewer longtime reporters who have the experience, relationships and reputation for being trustworthy that are needed for great religion coverage.
Writing about faith is often intimate, personal and emotionally charged. It’s like writing about someone’s child. People won’t tell you the truth unless they believe you are trustworthy. And they won’t believe your reporting, especially when it’s bad news, unless you handle every story with great care.
The Globe’s Spotlight coverage did that. They got the facts and the context right. And they proved themselves trustworthy.
Without both, we could end up headed back to the days before Spotlight. Religious leaders who use the power of faith for their own benefit and who shame the faithful into keeping their secrets are still out there. Leaders who lie to the people in the pews, and who betray people like my Uncle Jimmy.
To uncover them, we need all the gifts of the Spotlight team—investigative reporters and God-beat pros alike.
Bob Smietana is a veteran religion writer based in Nashville and the immediate past president of the Religion Newswriters Association.