Spotlight (Movie Review)

In 2002 Cardinal Bernard F. Law of the Boston Archdiocese was forced to resign amidst a growing scandal in which he was personally involved in helping to cover up decades of child abuse. While the association between the Catholic Church and child sex abuse scandals are now universally documented across any country where the Catholic Church had a meaningful presence, as little as fifteen years ago this was not known to be or seen as a systemic issue in the Church’s history. To provide some perspective, consider an article from the Boston Globe article at the time of Law’s resignation:

The move brought an ignominious end to the tarnished career of one of America’s most prominent churchmen, who had lost the confidence of many Catholic laypeople and priests after a year of brutally damaging revelations about scores of priests who over a period of decades had kept their jobs despite raping, molesting, and groping children and adolescents… Law’s resignation is unprecedented - this is the cardinal-archbishop of one of the premier archdioceses in the whole world - being forced to resign.

Law moved to Rome subsequently and two years later was made the Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. This is apparently the Vatican’s version of a punishment to senior members of the clergy: assign them to sinecures in churches filled with beautiful artwork by the Italian masters. Amazingly aiding and abetting paedophile priests in Massachusetts only become a crime after these horrific stories broke in 2002, leading the attorney general of Massachusetts to say that while “the Archdiocese has shown an institutional reluctance to adequately address the problem and, in fact, made choices that allowed the abuse to continue”, Law himself was not guilty of any crime and did not evade any investigations.

The 2015 movie Spotlight is an excellent biographical drama film depicting how journalists at the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting unit (known as “Spotlight”) uncovered and broke the story of the widespread sex abuse that happened in the Boston Archdiocese under the tutelage of Cardinal Law, who was personally aware of these crimes and helped to shuffle paedophile priests into other jurisdictions. The movie has a strong cast including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci.

In the first scene of the movie, a Catholic priest (Father John Geoghan), is in a detention room in a Boston police station. The assistant district attorney shows up and extricates the priest from his legal predicament. One of the police officers notes that it will be difficult for the public not to find out about this, but is assured that this sort of thing is kept under wraps by the Boston Police Department. Meanwhile, another senior priest is talking to the presumable mother of the boy who has been molested assuring her that this sort of thing won’t happen again. With this opening scene, the viewers are brought into the context of the power structures that will allow the Catholic church to cover up decades of sexual abuse in Boston: support from official state power, the corruption of the police force, and the silence imposed on the victims and their families. This pathological nexus will be the necessary and sufficient condition for keeping these crimes in plain sight.

While the Boston Globe had covered isolated cases of abuse by the Catholic church in Boston over its history, in 2001 the paper’s new editor Marty Baron asks the Spotlight team to look into whether a civil lawyer’s claims that Cardinal Law had knowledge of the abuse of his clients has any foundation. While many of the journalists are initially sceptical, due to a history of other reports which failed the pan out, the meticulousness of the Spotlight team proves to be sufficient to start connecting the dots. Or that is at least one interpretation. Characters in the movie are often pointing out that while Boston may be a large city in its population size, it is culturally more similar to a small village. The locals carry with them strong traditions and outsiders are looked upon with suspicion. The lawyer Mitchell Garabedian says that the reason he and the new editor are the only ones who can see the need to uncover this scandal is because they are outsiders being Armenian and Jewish, respectively. If it takes a village to raise a child, Garabedian says, it takes a village to hide the abuse of a child.

While never being the overt, Spotlight gives the audience several vignettes into the cozy relationship between the Catholic church and the political and cultural elites of Boston ranging from exclusive golf clubs, charity events, and alumni networks of the local Catholic schools. On the eve of the Spotlight team getting ready break to story, a lawyer from the Catholic church takes to Walter Robinson (played by Keaton) who leads the Spotlight team, telling him that after 9/11 the Church is too important in helping Bostonians through this difficult time and that it would be better to focus on a few of the bad apples rather than undermine the authority of the Church. Keaton’s character responds that he sees why this is the first time the story is breaking, because any time in the past someone has gotten close to exposing the systemic corruption of the Church, someone leans on a guy and a low-ranking official is punished and the story goes away.

At no point in the movie are the journalists given an aura of moral superiority but instead are shown to be the normal people that they must have no doubt been. They struggle with their own loss of faith and the impact that this story will have on their many friends and family to whom the Church is still a vital institution. John Slattery’s character is often shown to be defensive when previous evidence is brought up of the Globe’s own reluctance to follow up with previous victims and lawyers who sent the newspaper evidence at the time.

As noted before, the story broke by the Spotlight team can in many ways be seen as the catalyst which began the systematic exposure of child sexual abuse across a huge number of American, Canadian, and European cities. At the local level, the subsequent impact of the Boston Archdiocese cannot be understated. Referring to the same article from above:

Law leaves behind an archdiocese in financial and legal turmoil, with more than 500 pending lawsuits by victims of clergy sex abuse, and coffers so depleted that church officials are pondering filing for bankruptcy. Mass attendance has been falling as Catholics flee in disgust at stories of how their spiritual leaders failed to protect their children.

One of the more disturbing types of responses that have come from both the Church and its sympathizers over the past fifteen years can be seen by the response given by Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma who was the chairman of a national review board appointed by US bishops to monitor church compliance with their abuse-prevention policy.

The spiritual damage is incalculable… How many children have dropped out of Catholic school? How many parents have declined to put their children in Catholic school? How many young people have decided not to continue religious life? How many people have left the Catholic Church? This is absolutely horrific.

The most horrific thing with this sentiment is that the takeaway is not the horror of the sufferings of the victims but rather the horror at the loss of the cultural and political power of the Church. But then again one shouldn’t be surprised given that the current Pope will not apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system, to this day calling victim’s slanderers, and for failing to remove virtually any senior Church officials despite some of them facing trial for covering up sex abuse. Spotlight is available on Netflix and has universally acclaimed by critics. While the film may make most viewers’ blood boil, it is an essential movie to watch.

Written on June 1, 2018