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Maurice Timothy ReidyNovember 04, 2015

In a revealing moment in Spotlight, the expertly crafted new film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the clerical sexual abuse scandal, the lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) offers a damning analysis of the unfolding crisis. “Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes,” he tells Globe reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” 

Much will be written about “Spotlight” in the months to come. It is already being talked about as a formidable contender for Best Picture of the year. It is also sure to start new debates about what policies led to the widespread abuse of children by priests in Boston and around the world. Some people may feel Tom McCarthy, the writer and director, does not capture every nuance of this tragic and complicated story. But these questions should not distract from his great achievement: “Spotlight” is, at once, a detective story, a love letter to journalism and a sensitive exploration of the ravages of sexual abuse upon an entire community. Catholics who have lived with this scandal for decades will again be scalded by its horrors. And this Catholic, at least, emerged from the film wondering why it took so long to do something about it.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis]

The village at the heart of “Spotlight” is, of course, Boston, the big city that still feels like a small town, ruled for decades by Irish Catholics. McCarthy immerses the viewer in the heart of Catholic Boston, from the palatial residence of Cardinal Bernard Law to the Catholic Charities dinners that sustain the church’s many charitable works. The Globe lives in the shadow of this world, with many editors and writers who still call themselves Catholic in one way or another. 

Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is a graduate of Boston College High School who has made good at the Globe, rising to lead the paper’s famed Spotlight investigative team. His reporters are poking around a story about police misconduct when a new editor-in-chief rides into town looking for a way to make the paper relevant at the dawn of the digital age. Robinson and editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, a long way from the sartorial splendor of “Mad Men”) are suspicious of Marty Baron, an outsider with big ideas who has little to say. The fact he is Jewish and not from Boston is pointed out by more than one of the paper’s critics. When Baron (Liev Schreiber) suggests taking legal action against the church, in an effort to unseal classified documents related to the case of John Geoghan, the publisher wonders whether it is a good idea to upset the paper’s Catholic readership.

The Globe’s leadership may be reluctant to alienate a powerful constituency, but they follow Baron’s lead, and thanks to some dogged reporting, they slowly begin to find their story. One of the pleasures of “Spotlight” is watching the Globe’s editorial team employ their skills to coax reluctant sources and navigate the byzantine rituals of searching public records. No computer assisted reporting for these journos. They have to rely on the Globe’s “morgue” of archived clips and the state’s hard-to-access legal records. Their great find is an archive of Catholic directories they use to compile a list of priests who were reassigned under questionable circumstances. Never has a Catholic directory been lavished with such cinematic attentions.

One of the arguments of “Spotlight” is that investigative journalism matters, and that it takes time and resources to be done well. McCarthy, who played a reporter on the final season of “The Wire,” may indulge in some newsroom nostalgia at times, but it is hard to disagree with this larger point. Solid investigative journalism can still be found in national newspapers, but many cities across the country do not have a strong independent press to serve as a check on local corruption. The year 2001 may not be that long ago, but in “Spotlight” it seems very far away. 

Ruffalo, playing Rezendes, captures a classic journalistic type: a disorganized yet feisty reporter who kicks into high gear when facing a deadline or catching the scent of a good story. Ruffalo’s performance may be the best of a superb cast, which also includes Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and Billy Crudup. McCarthy is unusually sensitive to the challenges faced by Catholic reporters reporting on a great Catholic scandal. Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) attends church with her grandmother, but stops going after she starts interviewing sexual abuse victims. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Rezendes admits that he loved going to church while he was young and hoped some day to go back. But then he read letters from family members to church leaders detailing the abuse of their children, all of which fell on deaf ears.

Making the stories of victims new again is perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment. In years after the Globe’s report, representatives from Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and other victim groups became go-to media sources, and sometimes the unique tragedy of their experiences was lost in the media din. McCarthy wisely chooses to highlight just a few victims, and allows them to tell their stories plainly, but in painful detail. A young boy is abused by the first person, a priest, who tells him it is OK to be gay. A boy who recently lost his father is preyed upon by a priest precisely because he is emotionally vulnerable. The sadness of these scenes is fathomless. 

For a film that profiles an investigation into the church, it is surprising how few clerics make an appearance in “Spotlight.” There is a portrayal of Cardinal Law, of course, and a quick shot of Geoghan, but that’s about it. McCarthy is more interested in examining the lives of the other Catholics in Boston and how the scandal affected them. One important relationship centers on Robby Robinson and Jim Sullivan, a lawyer and old friend from Boston College High School, who, Robinson gradually learns, helped the archdiocese settle several sexual abuse cases. McCarthy, a Boston College grad, takes a keen interest in how these Catholic schoolboys come to terms with the abuse that went on in their city. 

In choosing to focus on this relationship, McCarthy suggests both that the church is larger than the clerics who lead it and that the weight of the sexual abuse scandal rested heavily on all of the Catholics of Boston. “We all knew something was going on. Where were you?” Sullivan asks Robinson when he is finally confronted with the full list of accused priests. “I don’t know, Jim,” he replies ruefully. In a later scene, Robinson and his team struggle with guilt for failing to report the story years earlier, when victims first started coming forward. 

“Spotlight” does not offer any easy answers to what caused the sexual abuse scandal, though it does suggest some theories. Rezendes keeps up a running correspondence with A.W. Richard Sipe, the former priest and psychologist who recognizes priestly abuse as a “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.” He proposes that a secretive culture within the priesthood, where some men were sexually immature, allowed the abuse to occur. But ultimately the film resists placing blame on any one person or policy. Marty Baron is eager to indict “the system” at the heart of the scandal, and McCarthy leaves viewers with multiple screens full of names of dioceses that experienced major problems with abuse. But the question of why these scandals happened and how they should be avoided is left largely open. This viewer was left with the nagging thought that the abuse scandal is something that all Catholics have to reckon with in some fashion. In its own way, “Spotlight” calls on all Catholics to take responsibility for the church, because when it falters, we all pay a price.

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William Rydberg
8 years ago
To this day I am puzzled as to why Rome did not ask him (Cardinal Law) to live a penitential life out of any kind of spotlight... Let Jesus-God come in the flesh be the Judge... I suspect that St Charles Borromeo, whose Optional Memorial it is today, would have had the answer.... Pray for us!
Richard Booth
8 years ago
Why puzzled? Didn't the guy (Law) get a cathedral position in Rome? Past practice. As Tevye sings, "Tradition!"
John Feehily
8 years ago
As a priest and native of Boston who happened to be visiting family there when the Globe began its Spotlight coverage, I am not sure I will be watching this movie. I hope I'm wrong, but I am willing to wager that it will not include material to make it clear that upwards of 90% of all priests were not involved in this kind of activity or coverup. Nor do I expect that it will have a crawler at the end which informs the audience of the steps the church has taken to ensure that there will be safe environments for all our children in parishes throughout the US. Let me hasten to add that I had telephone and email conversations at that time with one of the Spotlight reporters to provide some background perspective. What the Globe did was commendable and necessary, what this movie will do is to incur great pain and some animus towards the church, not all of it deserved.
8 years ago
You are probably right, Fr Feehily, and let me add that most instances of sexual molestation of children are committed by family members (a proven, documented fact), and when it comes to religious bodies, Catholic priests are low on the list. Protestant Ministers far outnumber Catholic ministers. Additionally, sexual abuse is principally an issue of a heterosexual man molesting a young woman - it is not the homosexual. "If it bleeds, it leads". People like a show. You have my support, Father, for whatever it's worth. Still you will agree that the Vatican dropped the ball on this one big time...and continues to allow the ball to travel aimlessly while Bernard Law enjoys his freedom in the Vatican
Molly Roach
8 years ago
I continue to be utterly confused as to why priests who were "not involved in this kind of activity or cover up" make the situation about themselves instead of gravitating towards the victims and their families. As for this movie incurring great pain---that pain is already there.
Richard Booth
8 years ago
You may be correct that the whatever percentage of non-offending priests will not be mentioned; however, that is not the issue. The issue is what DID happen and how it was covered up for so many years by so many. IMHO, my experience has been that priests I have lived with and known become pretty self-centered and self-protective, not to mention that their greatest talent has not been good problem-solving. There is, I think, often a bit of ego involved, for example, "I am a priest!,!" therefore, I am better than the laity. This was (and perhaps still is) taught in seminaries. It's called narcissism and it is pathological.
Henry George
8 years ago
I not able to fathom why the Bishops who hid/moved those who were repeat offenders have not stepped down from their office and led a life of penance. Did the priests that they knew were repeat offenders have something over the Bishops ? Were the Bishops so desperate for priests to staff their parishes that they overlooked the repeated offences ? I think of all the fine men who were turned out of Seminaries/Houses of Formation because they dared to question those in authority or because they demanded that action be taken against those who wantonly violated chastity/celibacy - the very same men who later became priests and repeatedly violated the sanctity of the children in their parishes - and wonder why this Church of God is/was so slow to take action and why those "servants of God" were so slow, so unchristian in their duty to protect children...
Carolyn Disco
8 years ago
"I (am) not able to fathom why the Bishops who hid/moved those who were repeat offenders have not stepped down from their office and led a life of penance." Just about all complicit bishops were promoted to higher office, so there is a message there. They kept the secrets, avoided scandal, bella figura was preserved, Rome was pleased, Those brave priests who fought for survivors were removed from their posts, harassed by their "brothers," and God help them if they reported perpetrators to the police when the bishop refused to do so. The clericalist mindset is ingrained in formation; that privileged culture is a problem. See MiIwaukee's sitting archbishop, Jerome Listecki (himself a lawyer), and the cruelty of his approach in the current settlement. Jerk people around for five years, threaten unending litigation, even to the US Supreme Court, and then claim you bring healing --- while survivors bleed. http://ncronline.org/news/accountability/milwaukee-archdioceses-settlement-plan-stuns-sex-abuse-victims Excerpt: "Monica Barrett, a woman who alleges she was raped by Fr. William Effinger in 1968 when she was 8 years old, was one of the victims who will receive no compensation. She had filed suit against the archdiocese in 1993 but the case was dismissed because it was past the statute of limitations. In 2011, lawyers for the archdiocese contacted her and suggested she file a claim. "They said they wanted to resolve all the old claims," Barrett said, adding that she opted to contact a lawyer because she didn't trust the archdiocese. "I thought this would be my opportunity to get some measure of accountability for what happened to me." Later, the archdiocese had her case dismissed from the bankruptcy, claiming she was Effinger's first victim and they could not have known he was an abuser. Effinger died in prison after being convicted of another abuse. Barrett said the proposed settlement has been hard on all of the victims." Of course, the plain truth is never spoken when a criminally negligent bishop "resigns." The bleached language of public relations dominates, and the hierarch continues on his way. Why would Law lead a life of penance when he can be named to a major basilica, serve on important Vatican boards, become a fixture at receptions (seminarians vie for photos), and retirement is elegant. He begged to resign and Rome said no the first time; the second time he had lost the support of major donors in Boston after some documents were made public, and that sealed it. Have Vatican passport; will travel. Here is IL Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke on the responses of American bishops to the lay Review Board's investigations: "There were plenty of moments when members of the American hierarchy were deliberately less than candid about their reactions to our work. Some sought to neutralize our efforts, others sought to disparage us, personally, while others sought to stonewall our investigations and ensure that our commitment to end “business-as-usual” would be thwarted at the first opportunity." It's not over. Many bishops' heads will need to roll before people take accountability and transparency seriously.
Robert Klahn
8 years ago
In an organization where the leader is considered infallible, it gets awfully hard to admit to fallibility at any level. To admit to human error was not possible for those who thought they spoke for God.
8 years ago
I remember it as if it were yesterday: Pope John Paul II called the USA Cardinals to the Vatican to scold them. And nothing more came of it. They fretted what to do about Bernard Law. That was their biggest concern. He should have been forced to face each of the parents, one by one, and apologize, listen to their pain and deal with it. That would have been a worthy start. Yet, had he really been a servant of Christ, we would not have needed to be forced: he would have fled to these families begging for forgiveness and offering them the balm of healing. Why did nothing get done to protect our children and families who were left alone to solve the trauma caused by the priests and bishops? It came from the top! Meanwhile Bernard Law roams the streets of the Vatican as if nothing. Pope Francis could do something about it just like he did something about the former Nuncio of the Dominican Republic: threw him in prison and died awaiting his trial. Until then, the Vatican is to blame...all the way down to the priests who hid the offending cleric. "And whosoever shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me; it were better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck, and he were cast into the sea. " Gospel of St Mark 9:42, Douay-Rheims Bible
Bill Mazzella
8 years ago
Tim Reidy wonders why it took so long to get the bishops to acknowledge this great abuse. Andrew Greeley was shouting about it for a long time. As was Tom Doyle who was commissioned to investigate the issue in the late 80s only to have the Bishops reject his report while they ostracized him. After the Bishops met to declare zero tolerance they still stonewalled so much so that Gov. Keating a man accustomed to the cutthroat world of politics was astounded at the Bishop's intransigence. He said they were "like the Mafia." The truth is the Catholic literary world conservative and liberal were still denying. Without the Globe there would still be denial. Problems remain. But the church is much better today.
Richard Booth
8 years ago
Perhaps one of the reasons Greeley was not a favorite of his superiors relates to what you have written. For a church that says it values the truth, hmm...
James Richard
8 years ago
I'm sure what will be missing in the film as in the Boston Globe coverage, was at the time that these cases took place some as far back as 40 plus years ago, lawyers who later sued, like Mitchell Garabedian, settled with the Church on the grounds of keeping silent. He himself was part of the problem. Also too, was the fact that law enforcement would not prosecute sexual abusers if the victims would not testify. This was the days before rape shield laws where the victim's identity would not be made public. Parents would not have their child testify as advised by their lawyers, for fear of being stigmatized among their peers. Then of course the Bishops who were advised by lawyers and psychiatrists on what to do with the priest who committed sexual abuse with a minor. Also, what won't be mentioned is that the majority of cases, it was not pedophilia, i.e. an adult with a prepubescent child, but homosexual priests with post-pubescent teen boys. Hindsight shows that the Church, law enforcement, lawyers and doctors handled the entire thing badly, but its how institutions of the time handled these cases. In the end, it's the Church which has lost its credibility to teach on moral issues. Lastly, we the people of the Church are the one's paying for these sins.
Sandi Sinor
8 years ago
Several statements are either wrong, misleading, or incomplete. . But I will only call you out on one, one that is repeated over and over by the apologists for the scandal. The majority of victims were pre-pubescent, not post-pubescent. Only 26.7% of victims were post-pubescent, generally defined as boys from 15-17 years of age. Victims in this age group were significantly outnumbered by boys in the youngest age group. Boys aged 11 and younger were 33.6% of all victims. Those attracted by post-pubescent boys (15-17) are called ephebophiles.The 12-14 year olds fall in an ambiguous zone as individual physical maturity has a range. Most boys in this age group are in early pubescence, few are post-pubescent. Those attracted to this age group are called hebephiles. See Table 4.3.2 Victim's Age at First Abuse in the John Jay Report for further detail.
Ellen Hernandez
7 years 8 months ago
Why quibble over whether the victims were pre-pubescent or post-pubescent? Do you think it's consensual or even less egregious if the victim is a teen? I was a victim of abuse at ages 15-16, and it ruined my youth and set me on a nearly two-decade path of alcoholism. A teen is still a child.

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