When Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters won the Venice Film Festival’s top award in 2002, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, published a scathing piece calling it “an angry and rancorous provocation,” among other things.
In 2003 the U.S. bishops’ film review office called The Magdalene Sisters, which depicts abusive conditions in religious Irish institutions for “fallen women,” a “coarse fact-based but manipulative melodrama.” I had just begun at the National Catholic Register that year, and I wrote a cautious but severe review (with a follow-up piece a few years later) over which I still get occasional angry emails. Similar takes appeared in other Catholic publications.
Spotlight, which won Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday, has been received very differently by Catholics. The film depicts the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team in 2001 and 2002 on mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of minors by the Boston Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Law.
It began at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, where Spotlight screened out of competition. The festival’s SIGNIS jury (SIGNIS is the World Catholic Association for Communication) issued a statement calling Spotlight a “captivating film” that “calls the Catholic Church to be the moral leader it claims to be.”
In November, the U.S. bishops’ film review office (now under the auspices of Catholic News Service) wrote a guarded but positive review, calling it a “generally accurate chronicle” offering “valuable insight into one of the darkest chapters in ecclesiastical history.”
I watched Spotlight twice in November and was deeply impressed; I included it in my top 10 films of 2015, as did Catholic News Service and a number of my friends and peers in the world of cinephiles of faith.
The day after the Academy Awards, L’Osservatore Romano made it quasi-official, praising Spotlight’s “compelling plot” and insisting that it is “not anti-Catholic,” but “manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovering of these horrendous realities.”
Positive response hasn’t just come from the Catholic press. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Boston Archdiocese, where Spotlight is set, watched the film in December and found it to be “very powerful and important,” according to an archdiocesan spokesman. Cardinal O’Malley is the head of a tribunal created by Pope Francis in 2015 to prosecute bishops charged with not enforcing the Church’s “zero-tolerance” policy for abuse by clergy.
Word on Fire founder Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, who often comments on movies in his popular YouTube videos, offered muted praise, calling the film “very sober, very understated” and adding, “It’s not a bad movie, and it’s worth looking at that time again.”
Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former chief prosecutor of clerical sex abuse cases, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that “All bishops and cardinals must see this film, because they must understand that it is reporting [abuse] that will save the Church, not ‘omertà.’” (Omertà is a term from Mafia culture meaning a code of silence and non-cooperation.)
Other positive responses have come from a wide range of sources including Catholic News Agency critic Carl Kozlowski, Vatican Radio culture commentator Luca Pellegrini, Boston Pilot columnist Dwight Duncan (a canon lawyer and civil lawyer in the Boston area), and popular author and blogger Dr. Taylor Marshall.
Why has Catholic response to Spotlight been so positive?
One key reason is the film’s shrewd choice of point of view. Spotlight tells the story entirely from the perspective of the Globe journalists, focusing on the investigation and the patterns of secrecy and cover-up; it also makes the pain of the victims heartbreakingly real through interviews with now-adult victims — but it does so without putting abuse onscreen.
Confronting the victims’ pain is crucial to the film’s power. “Honestly, most Catholics have never [knowingly] looked a victim of clerical abuse in the eye,” Kathryn Jean Lopez of NationalReview.com wrote to me via email. Lopez, who told me she had “no idea” the film would affect her so powerfully, began her recent piece with the words “Thank God for the Boston Globe. Thank God for Spotlight.”
There’s also the persuasive sense of authenticity. “What surprised me as a journalist, more than a Catholic, was all the things they got right,” Deacon Greg Kandra, a popular news blogger and multimedia professional who worked for decades at CBS News, told me. The filmmakers “capture the mood, temperament and spirit of working in a newsroom, and celebrated the old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism that is rapidly going out of style — the very kind of reporting that uncovered the scandal…and that fewer news organizations are investing in.”
Another factor is lack of triumphalism. Spotlight is an angry movie, but also a sad one, blaming Church leaders but also mourning the loss of faith among victims and others. At least two clerics are noted as men of conscience who did what they could, and the film acknowledges failures beyond the Church as well, even at the Globe itself.
Catholic response to Spotlight hasn’t been unmixed. Former SIGNIS president Father Peter Malone, a Sacred Heart Missionary and a veteran film critic from Australia, wrote to me that while he found the film generally well made, he was “irked” by “the Americanism — it gave the impression that the Spotlight team had unearthed the issue of abuse before anyone else did. [In Australia we] were dealing with abuse officially from 1996 and amongst dioceses and orders before that…I also thought the screenplay did not do enough justice to police work.”
In my own review I highlighted some caveats, among them the film’s perpetuation of unscientific statistics about rates of abuse among Catholic clergy, which have not been found to be higher than in other fields such as public education. Nor does the film note that rates of abuse by Catholic clergy peaked in the 1970s, with sharp declines since then.
A negative piece in CrisisMagazine.com by Anne Hendershott of Franciscan University of Steubenville highlighted alleged distortions, including portrayals of a number of individuals who say they were smeared and neglect of the Boston Globe’s history of antagonism against the archdiocese.
One of Hendershott’s sources, David Pierre, has written extensively about anti-Catholic bias at the Globe at his website TheMediaReport.com and in a pair of self-published books.
There is some truth to these charges, according to journalist and author Phil Lawler, a Boston area native whose 2010 book The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture is must reading on the origins and fallout of the abuse crisis in Boston. (Lawler finds Pierre’s work helpful with qualifications, noting, “In his zeal to protect the Church from unjust criticism he sometimes defends the indefensible.”)
But Lawler is among Spotlight’s Catholic advocates, writing in FirstThings.com that the film “successfully conveys the essence of the story.”
“I do think it’s important to keep in mind that the scenes are constructed, and the plot line generally simplified, for dramatic effect,” Lawler told me. “I don’t think Spotlight distorted the facts seriously; I do think the filmmakers used an approach that supported their own ‘take’ on the scandal. That will always be the case; caveat emptor. Overall, the film was a reasonably fair recreation of how the cover-up was defeated.”
One point most commentators noted was that Spotlight doesn’t acknowledge the substantial reform efforts undertaken since 2002 to develop and implement new policies and standards to protect minors. The film ends with a long list of locations where abuse cases have occurred with which the film ends, which, without context, could suggest to some that nothing has been done. Comments from some filmmakers, including producer Michael Sugar’s appeal to Pope Francis in his Academy Award acceptance speech, could also perpetuate this notion.
The USCCB claims that the Church “has done more to protect children than almost any other organization in the United States,” citing prevention training, background checks, zero tolerance and other initiatives. Rates of new credible accusations since 2002 are down dramatically. Even the latest shock waves from the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Pennsylvania involve cases so old that most of the priests are dead.
“The U.S. hierarchy has done a good job of providing for disciplinary action against abusive priests,” Lawler said. Still, he added, “their implementation depends on the commitment of the bishops, and since the bishops’ credibility has been severely damaged, there’s no assurance that the policies are actually being followed. We’re still waiting for bishops to be held accountable.”
Msgr. Jim Lisante, host of the Sirius Satellite Radio Catholic Channel show “Personally Speaking,” made a similar point.
“Many of the steps which have been taken by the Church” are “good and helpful,” he acknowledged. “But so much of the institutional sins of the scandal would not have happened had more bishops had the backbone of someone like Bishop John D’Arcy, the truth-telling bishop from Boston” briefly but positively mentioned in Spotlight.
“Somewhere in the process of selecting bishops,” Msgr. Lisante went on, “I believe the Holy See needs to ask: Can this man we are selecting tell us even the unpopular truth? Can he hold a mirror to the institution of the Church and challenge us to see the truth even if it hurts? Are those bishops selected only obedient corporate leaders, or men of real conscience?”
More bluntly, he concluded, “how do you say you stand with a Christ who says: ‘Woe to those who hurt the little ones,’ and still protect the priests who abused children?”