The filmmakers behind "Spotlight," the movie about The Boston Globe's investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, this week defended their portrayal of a Boston College spokesman in the film, and refused to remove the scene in which he appears.
The contested scene shows a meeting at Boston College High School between Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn; the high school's president, Bill Kemeza; Globe reporters Walter "Robby" Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer; and a composite character, in which they discuss whether past administrators were aware of sexual abuse.
Dunn's character says at one point, "It's a big school, Robby, you know that. And we're talking about seven alleged victims over, what, eight years?"
In a letter to the moviemakers dated Nov. 18, an attorney for Dunn said the scene casts the BC spokesman as a collaborator in the coverup, and called the portrayal "defamatory," and a "devastating fabrication." He demanded the scene be removed, and has pressed his case in recent days in newspaper and television interviews.
But in a response dated Nov. 24, the filmmakers "respectfully, but vigorously" disagreed.
"The gist of Mr. Dunn's claim is that 'Spotlight' implies that he actively conspired with the Catholic Church to cover up child abuse," the letter from Breaking News Productions, Participant Media, and Open Road Films reads. "However, the portrayal of Mr. Dunn, which amounts to a few lines in one scene of a two-hour, eight-minute movie does not support this implication. And the implication that actually arises — that Dunn is a trained public-relations professional who cares deeply about the reputation of BC High — is not actionable."
During the scene, Dunn's character states that the reporters are "reaching" for a story, and tells Robinson that "you care about the school as much as we do." Dunn's attorney argued that the character appears to be attempting to "suppress the truth and minimize the Globe reporting about the abuse of children."
But the filmmakers say that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the scene, which they say was not about whether abuse occurred, but whether past administrators knew it was happening at the time. Dunn, their letter states, is not depicted trying to cover up any abuse. Rather, they say, he is shown arguing simply that past administrators may not have known about it in part because of the size of the school.
"A reasonable viewer of the film would conclude that Mr. Dunn, who is accurately characterized as an alumnus and public-relations professional from an affiliated institution, was concerned about the reputation of BC High, and acted in concert with his affiliation and professional training," says the moviemakers' letter, which includes multiple legal citations supporting their argument.
The filmmakers based the scene on the recollections of Robinson, which were vetted by Pfeiffer, according to the letter.
On Wednesday night, Robinson said the scene is faithful to what occurred in the meeting, which was depicted in the movie as happening in 2001, though in reality it occurred in 2002.
"It was a not-atypical encounter between a reporter with tough questions and a public relations representative who is doing his very best to minimize the damage that is going to be done to his institution in what is clearly going to be an unhappy story," said Robinson, who spoke on behalf of himself and Pfeiffer. "That's what happened in 2002, and that's what the scene is about."
Robinson, a BC High alum, said he had a vivid recollection of what happened because the meeting itself was very difficult for him.
"This was my school, which I love. And it was a very painful interview for me to do, at an institution which I remain very close to. So I remember it quite well," he said.
He acknowledged he did not remember the verbatim words spoken by each person, but said Dunn did what any public relations person would do: He challenged the notion that administrators knew about the abuse at the time it happened. It was a moment made even more memorable, Robinson said, by Kemeza interrupting Dunn to say if he had been president at the time, he would have known.
Kemeza did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Dunn referred comments to his attorney, David H. Rich, who in a statement said it was "remarkably disappointing that the makers of a movie about investigative journalism would fabricate quotes about a real individual's response to the horrific clergy abuse sex scandal and contend that this was legally permissible or morally correct."
Rich said the "It's a big school, Robby" line was originally written for the fictional character, and said the shifting of dialogue from a fictional character to a real person was "a transparent attempt to portray him as one of the villains in the movie."