SDG Reviews ‘Spotlight’

Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams star in Tom McCarthy’s meticulously well-crafted drama about the journalistic investigation into clerical sex abuse and cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston.

(photo: Register Files)

In a crucial sequence in Thomas McCarthy’s 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 simply 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?

Did we think about the lawyers employed by Church authorities to facilitate private mediations with families so there would be no bookings, no charges, no court records, no paper trail? The testimony from victims, witnesses and whistleblowers that was buried, suppressed or just plain ignored?

“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 in the Church had not yet been exposed. That changed in 2002, thanks to a stunning series of articles that won the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team a Pulitzer Prize.

The Spotlight Team, a small unit of investigative journalists led by low-key, matter-of-fact Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), is our window on the film’s meticulously persuasive world. Along with Pfeiffer, Robinson’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.

Spotlight invites obvious comparisons to All the President’s Men and other great journalism films with its ode to the brass tacks of old-school investigative journalism, from poring through old stories and records in physical folders or on microfiche to knocking on the necessary doors repeatedly if needed to get access to a valuable source.

More than once, investigative scenes are intercut with one another to highlight the cumulative process of the work, as when Pfeiffer’s interview with the victim mentioned above cuts back and forth with Rezendes interviewing another victim, one of Garabedian’s clients. (The dialogue in these two interviews is as graphic as the film gets; in the whole film I think there is not a single shot of a priest and a minor in the same scene.) In another scene, Pfeiffer exhibits remarkable journalistic poise as she finds herself face to face with a genial ex-priest who is unsettlingly open about having “fooled around” with children, but exhibits an appalling lack of self-awareness and social awareness regarding his rationalizations and how they sound.

Every member of the Spotlight team was raised Catholic and is no longer practicing; Rezendes in particular harbors some animus against the Church. 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. According to the 2004 John Jay Report, less than 5% of clerical offenders from 1950 to 2002 were pedophiles (who target prepubescent children rather than adolescents or teenagers). Sipe’s 6% figure — based on his clinical experience, not controlled studies — is apparently validated in Boston, though nationwide, from 1950 to 2002, about 4% of clergy were accused of abuse, 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 fields such as public education, or among the general population — or that rates of clerical abuse peaked in the 1970s, with sharp declines since then. Characters reinforce the common but unconvincing platitude that sexual orientation has nothing to do with the fact that the vast majority of victims (more than 80%) are male. 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 narrowly and one-sidedly grim but undeniably based in fact.

Pervading the film is a lapsed-Catholic sensibility that is rightly angry, but also laced with sadness and loss. In a revelatory moment, a conflicted, angry Rezendes wonderingly admits that he liked going to Mass as a kid, and that, for all his issues with the Church, he had always held onto the idea that someday he might go back. No more, alas. There is nothing triumphalistic or vindictive here; the loss of religion is mourned, not celebrated. Sipe on the phone says that, despite not going to Mass, he still considers himself Catholic, distinguishing between the institutional Church and “the eternal” in which he places his faith.

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 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 Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Full disclosure: Steven writes a weekly column for the
Boston Globe website
Follow him on Twitter.


Caveat Spectator: Explicit accounts of sexual abuse and other sexually related dialogue (nothing shown); frequent profane, obscene and crude language; drug references. Mature viewing.