In a crucial sequence in Spotlight, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, telling his story to a Boston Globe reporter, says simply, “Then he molested me.”
The reporter, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), looks at him empathically. “I think language is going to be so important here,” she prompts gently. “Just saying ‘molest’ isn’t enough. People need to know what happened.”
We cloak the monstrous in euphemisms. We call it “unspeakable” or “unthinkable” — designations that are accurate because in using them we make them so. In Catholic circles a dozen years ago, one sometimes heard about “The Crisis”; later it became “The Scandal.” We all knew what these terms referred to, but did we really know?
Did we picture scenes like Spotlight’s queasy prologue: an assistant DA arriving at a police station, late at night, where a detained priest has been deferentially placed in the break room, the press sent away, while a bishop soothingly assures reeling family members that the offending cleric will be removed, and this will never, ever happen again? Did we think about how routinely such scenes played out in police stations for years and years?
“If it takes a village to raise a child,” flamboyant lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says, “it takes a village to abuse one.” That’s not true, of course, but it may take a village to let the same abusers get away with it again and again.
If today we can scarcely imagine such a village — or such a “small town,” as Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) ironically describes Boston at one point — Spotlight plunges us into the rhythms of a specific time and place: Boston around the turn of the millennium, at a time when cases of “pedophile priests” had been in the news for more than a decade, but the extent of the cover-up culture had not yet come to light.
Our window on this meticulously persuasive world is the Globe’s Spotlight Team, a small unit of investigative journalists, led by low-key, matter-of-fact Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Along with Pfeiffer, Robby’s team includes breezy workaholic Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and unassuming Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
A certain fatalism hangs over early scenes, not in connection with any scandal, but because print is in decline. The Globe’s website looks quaint and primitive by today’s standards, but the writing is on the wall. New editor Marty Baron (a reserved Liev Schreiber), an outsider in multiple ways — a Jewish Floridian in Catholic Boston — wants to tweak the Globe’s journalistic focus to strengthen its reader appeal, but the veterans are mainly concerned about layoffs.
Baron, the outsider, is the instigator for the investigation. When a story about a priest with a long list of abuse charges in several different parishes comes up, it registers as old news to Robby and his team, but Marty wants the bigger picture: something few in Boston were looking for. Presently there is a second name, then a third, and Rezendes in particular begins to suspect a pattern.
Rezendes is a lapsed Catholic with some animus against the Church; in fact, the whole Spotlight team were raised Catholic and are no longer practicing. From their perspective, amid the investigation that follows and the people they talk to, the portrait of the Church that emerges is almost unrelievedly negative.
We hear from an agitated Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a member of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), and Richard Sipe (a voice on the phone, provided by an uncredited Richard Jenkins), a former Benedictine and mental-health counselor who opines that up to 6% of Catholic priests “act out sexually with minors.”
Amid all this darkness, there is scarcely a scrap of comfort for Catholic viewers, other than two tidbits from the mid-1980s. In 1984, Boston Auxiliary Bishop John D’Arcy “broke ranks” and tried to persuade Cardinal Law to take notorious serial abuser Father John Geoghan out of full-time youth ministry; instead, it was Bishop D’Arcy who was transferred, to Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. In 1985, Dominican Father Thomas Doyle sent copies of a report he co-authored on the scope of the problem of clerical sexual abuse, calling it a billion-dollar liability, to every bishop in the United States. It was widely ignored.
Are there issues with this picture? Certainly. Characters perpetuate the common misuse of “pedophilia” in connection with abuse involving minors of any age; in fact, pedophilia, involving prepubescent children rather than adolescents or teenagers, is a small minority of all such crimes. Sipe’s 6% figure — based on his clinical experience, not controlled studies — is apparently validated in Boston, though the 2004 John Jay Report found that, nationwide, from 1950 to 2002, about 4% of clergy had been accused, with four in five of these accusations substantiated.
Spotlight never mentions that rates of abuse among Catholic priests have not been found to be higher than among other clergy, in other professions such as schoolteachers, or among the general population — or that rates of clerical abuse peaked in the 1970s, with sharp declines since then. And while end titles conclude with a long list of locations where scandals have occurred, there is no mention of the extensive measures the Church has undertaken in the last decade and a half to protect minors.
It would be easy for Catholics to seize on these and other issues and defensively dismiss the film as a hatchet job, but this would not be accurate or helpful. The film reflects the perspective of the Spotlight team; it offers a fundamentally negative view of Church leadership, one that is one-sidedly grim but essentially credible.
A lapsed-Catholic sensibility pervades the film: one that is rightly angry, but also laced with sadness and loss. In a revelatory moment, a conflicted, angry Rezendes wonderingly admits that for all his issues with the Church, he had always held onto the idea that someday he might go back. No more, alas.
Perhaps the most striking dimension of the film’s polemic is that it isn’t all directed at the Church. Church leaders are charged with manipulating the system, but the system is larger than the hierarchy. Lawyers, law enforcement, family members and friends and, pointedly and repeatedly, the fourth estate itself — the press, and specifically the Globe — are all implicated. “There’s a fair share of blame to go around,” Baron concludes judiciously in a thematically important speech as it becomes clear just how much was missed, and for how long, and by whom.
We say that the scandal is essentially a thing of the past, and it’s true that important progress has been made. But it’s perilously easy to implement programs without really confronting underlying cultural issues that made the scandal possible.
Catholic writer Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops, argues in his 2008 book Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and the Catholic Church that entrenched habits of secrecy, rather than transparency, concern for appearances over accountability, spin and happy talk are not cast off in a day and can be as damaging to the Church’s mission as the scandals they foster.
Spotlight confronts us in a new way with the disastrous consequences of patterns of denial and deception. For Catholic viewers, clerical and lay, it can be seen as a dramatic witness to the profound need to expect and insist on far-reaching cultural change, on a culture of openness, transparency and accountability. The Church is called to be the light of the world; we must not fear to turn a spotlight on ourselves.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of DecentFilms.com.
Full disclosure: Steven writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe website CruxNow.com.
Caveat Spectator: Explicit accounts of sexual abuse and other sexually related dialogue (nothing shown); frequent profane, obscene and crude language; drug references. Mature viewing.