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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

I love a good newspaper movie, especially when Armenians are the heroes. It's just too bad one of them didn't get the Spotlight he deserves.

I’m always on the lookout for Armenian names. It’s a common trait inherited from a generation of traumatized immigrants eager to know that others had survived to carry the line forward.

My wife and I both get a buzz when an Armenian pops up in movie credits or on TV or in a news story.  Even bad news is big news if an “ian” is involved. As a journalist, I always took special note of Armenian bylines, although there weren’t many. I worked with hundreds of journalists over the years but only a handful were Armenian.

One of the names I noted early and often was Stephen Kurkjian of the Boston Globe. I never met him and I didn’t see the Globe often, but many of his stories traveled far and wide along with his reputation as one of the country’s best investigative reporters.

He joined the Globe in 1968 and retired in 2007. Along the way he won more than 25 national and regional awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve known truly great reporters who’ve chased the profession’s biggest award for decades and never quite made it.

Kurkjian won it three times.

He won his last Pulitzer as part of the Globe’s Spotlight team, which uncovered a pattern of child abuse by dozens of Catholic priests in the Boston area. The paper revealed that the church was aware of the abuse but quietly shuffled the offending priests out of their parishes and pressured families to keep quiet.

Court files were often sealed or even hidden by officials sympathetic to the church.

Now the story of that investigation is being told in the movie Spotlight. I love a good newspaper movie as much as I hate a bad one, and I was assured by a friend that this one stood up as realistic and entertaining. It is indeed both, as I discovered when we saw the film the other night, but I left the theater feeling blind-sided.

The Steve Kurkjian character in the film is a quirky, peripheral figure who gets limited screen time. I know the type: a guy who’s been around long enough to have some value as a repository of institutional memory but who has little more to offer except a bit of cynical wit.

I came home wondering if my own memory had failed, but my failure was in not reading the Armenian Weekly newspaper that had been sitting on the dining room table for several days. That’s where I spotted Katie Vanadzin’s article The Armenians Who Took On The Catholic Church.

Yes, that’s Armenians—plural.

A founding member of the Spotlight team who went on to become head of the paper’s Washington bureau, Kurkjian first reported on child abuse by Boston-area priests in the early 1990s. The scope of that abuse didn’t become clear until after the Spotlight investigation got underway in 2001.

Kurkjian then rejoined the team and “played a major role in chronicling the extent of the Church’s cover-up,” according to The Globe’s account of the investigation.

As the Weekly noted, one of the film’s most dramatic moments comes when a reporter played by Rachel McAdams confronts a retired priest, who then admits to having molested boys in his parish. The interview really happened. The reporter was Kurkjian.

The Globe identified 87 priests who’d been accused in child molestation cases over a number of years, but even more shocking was the revelation that the pattern of abuse had long been clear to Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese.

In the film, Law refuses to comment through a spokesman before leaving Boston to take a post at the Vatican. In reality, he had to face Kurkjian, who caught up with him after getting a tip that Law was attending the funeral of an elderly priest at an Armenian church in Belmont, Mass.

I normally don’t get lathered up about movies taking license to reshape the truth. That’s drama for you, or comedy as the case may be. But Armenians have enough trouble getting noticed, so I take an oversight on this scale to heart.

Fortunately, the other Armenian at the story’s core gets much more attention. Mitchell Garabedian is a Boston lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy abuse. While other attorneys claimed such cases were almost impossible to pursue successfully, Garabedian has won millions of dollars for victims over the years.

Portrayed in the film by Stanley Tucci, Garabedian at first appears obsessed and cranky. He turns away a reporter who comes to his office, apparently unmoved by the paper’s interest and too protective of his clients’ privacy to want publicity. It soon becomes clear that Garabedian has been hardened by experience with both the church and the press.

He notes that the paper has shown interest in the story before only to drop its coverage, while the church has been relentless in pushing back against him and anyone else who goes up against it. A reporter played by Mark Ruffalo slowly wins Garabedian’s confidence, and the attorney helps him uncover names and details the church has kept in the dark.

In the movie as in real life, the paper’s determination is driven by its new executive editor, Marty Baron. He  sets the piece in motion by putting the Spotlight team on the story and instructing the paper’s attorneys to sue the church in an attempt to break the seal on cases it has secretly settled. 

Several characters suggest that Baron, who is Jewish, doesn’t understand the potential repercussions of such a challenge in a city as intensely Catholic as Boston—or that perhaps he doesn’t care.

Garabedian offers a more credible explanation by noting that he and Baron are both outsiders.

“I’m Armenian," he says. “These people—making us feel we don’t belong. But they’re no better than us. Look at how they treat their children.”

It’s a terrific line, and a powerful insight into Garabedian—good enough for me to give director and co-writer Tom McCarthy a partial pass for stiffing Kurkjian and to recommend the movie highly.