Ruffalo, who portrays reporter Michael Rezendes in the film, told reporters at Spotlight's Boston premiere Wednesday night that he had friends who were victims of clergy abuse.
"I grew up Catholic and the hypocrisy of it and the dogma of it had chilled my relationship with it very early on," he said. "Even as a boy, I could feel it. There was a cruelty in the way the nuns treated us. It just didn't jibe with the teachings of Christ that were being taught, you know?"
Several reporters and editors who worked on the story for the Globe's Spotlight investigative team joined Ruffalo and castmate Brian d’Arcy James (who plays reporter Matt Carroll) on the red carpet outside the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The staffers behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning story said that while having a movie made about the investigation is rewarding (Spotlight is already attracting major Oscar buzz), the most gratifying aspect was exposing the Catholic hierarchy's coverup of priests who abused children, and causing change within the church.
"We saw a lot of people heal as a result of this, and that's a good feeling when you can help someone take that next step," said reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, who was played by Rachel McAdams in the movie. "It sounds cliché, but I always say this is a story that reminds me of the importance of questioning authority. Whether governmental, non-profit, religious, a for-profit entity … ask tough questions."
Walter "Robbie" Robinson, the former Spotlight editor portrayed by Michael Keaton in the film, said the investigation changed his view of the church.
"We were stunned to find out that these unspeakable crimes had been going on and had been enabled and condoned and perpetuated, then covered up for decades while thousands of children were abused by priests," Robinson said. "I was a lapsed Catholic at the time, and I'm super lapsed now."
The real-life Rezendes also says the investigation cemented his decision against returning to the church.
"Even though I was a lapsed Catholic, I still considered myself a Catholic and thought that possibly, some day, I would go back to being a practicing Catholic. But after this experience, I found it impossible to do that – or even think about doing that," he said. "What we discovered was just too shattering."
Although several actors, reporters and editors in attendance said they are pleased with what Pope Francis has to say – especially as it relates to the sex abuse scandal – they believe change should happen faster.
"Obviously the church has taken some meaningful steps over the years, but it was only this past summer that the church said it was going to name a tribunal to hold bishops accountable for having participated in the cover-up – where they knew that priests who were in their diocese were abusing kids, and yet they were reassigned from parish to parish," said former Globe editor Marty Barron, played by Liev Schreiber in the film.
"It's been 14 years. One would have thought this would have been addressed before now," he added. "Clearly this is an issue that endures, and one that the church is still grappling with."
Reporter Matt Carroll said he was moved after talking to victims who were still suffering decades later.
"It was heartbreaking to listen to them. They're 40 years old and their lives are a total mess because of the abuse that occurred 20 years earlier," he said. "That was always tough, but I think overall, this story improved us all as reporters. It was an unbelievably intense experience and I think it was the best year of journalism in all of our careers."
Open Road Films, the company releasing Spotlight, is offering free tickets to a Thursday night screening of the movie for Boston-area clergy abuse victims.
The film will hit theaters on Nov. 6.