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McCarthy investigation parallels ‘Spotlight’

The film tells the story of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into systematic child sexual abuse by representatives of Boston’s Catholic Church.

McCarthy’s investigation uncovered widespread child sexual abuse perpetrated primarily by the region’s Catholic clergy and led to a NSW commission of inquiry. It was later cited by then prime minister Julia Gillard when announcing the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Since its formation three years ago, the Royal Commission has received about 23,000 calls, 11,000 submissions and more than 600 matters have been referred to police across Australia.

McCarthy’s investigation also resulted in her being awarded the Gold Walkley in 2013 for her body of work, published under the banner of the Newcastle Herald’s “Shine a Light campaign”.

Almost 10 years after she began reporting on the issue, McCarthy and her former editor Chad Watson were invited to see Spotlight with Newcastle’s Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson.

Elected in 2013, Bishop Thompson is a sex abuse victim himself, and determined to expose any misdeeds within his church.

It was a different attitude to when McCarthy began her investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse in the Hunter and Newcastle area.

“Church hierarchy and church advocates, including individuals facing allegations, have all threatened to sue Joanne McCarthy and the Newcastle
Herald,” says Watson, who is now Newcastle/Hunter group managing editor for Fairfax Media.

“But the newspaper has stood firmly behind her courageous work in the face of mounting criticism.

“If anything, legal threats and political apathy have spurred Joanne to greater journalistic heights in keeping church and other authorities

“If anything, legal threats and political apathy have spurred Joanne to greater journalistic heights in keeping church and other authorities

A prominent theme of Spotlight is how the dominance and reverence of an institution like the church can foster a culture of silence, where atrocities like sexual abuse are overlooked or excused. This culture permeates not only in churches and communities, but newsrooms.

McCarthy said she was surprised by the number of shared experiences and situations depicted in Spotlight.

“I think people will see Spotlight and they will admire and appreciate the fact that journalists were prepared to fight,” she says.

The scene that most resonated with her features an exchange between Jim Sullivan, a lawyer who helped settle sexual abuse cases for the archdiocese, and leader of the Spotlight team Walter Robinson.

“I was just doing my job,” says Sullivan. “Yeah, you and everyone else,” replies Robinson.

McCarthy has often said this phrase. Lawyers, politicians, police and the media were all “just doing their job”, responding to each individual incident but failing to connect the dots to form the bigger picture.

“Within all of those different professional responses, that’s where the poor victims and survivors and families were just left on their own,” she says.

Throughout her investigation, McCarthy has wrote more than 350 articles and opinion pieces, worked countless extra hours and interviewed around 200 victims, including some revealing their abuse for the first time. She is proud of her work, but it hasn’t been without its impact.

“If you’re going to do serious work then you have to be really serious about looking after yourself, and you have to be willing to say no,” she says.

“I sold my house 18 months ago because of the impact of all this stuff.

“When things were really tough I would go for walks in the middle of the night. My dog Lloyd would walk with me”

“When things were really tough I would go for walks in the middle of the night. My dog Lloyd would walk with me, and occasionally my cat Puddy would try to join us as well.”

McCarthy jokes that swearing became one of her coping mechanisms.

She doesn’t hesitate to use the odd profanity to describe some of the backlash she has received over the years, including a police report that described her as wanting to be a victim.

“You can’t be the victim,” she stresses.

“You have to empathise with people, you have to be supportive and you have to do things stepping out of your objective role to do work with child sexual abuse. You don’t have a choice. That’s the only way you’re able to do it, to engage and get people to trust you.

“But in doing that, there’s an incredibly fine line where you can tip over the edge and just wallow and become a victim and that’s the thing that you
can’t do.”

Just before the Spotlight’s credits roll, title cards present a seemingly endless list of towns and cities worldwide where major
abuse scandals have been uncovered. “Newcastle, Australia” appears.

The cinema was almost empty when McCarthy, Watson and Bishop Thompson saw the film. But even before the lights were raised a woman was already shaking McCarthy’s hand and calling her a heroine.

Another approached soon afterwards and simply mouthed “Thank you”.

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