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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Shining a ‘spotlight’ on an unholy sex abuse scandal


Gerald Schmitz

Already a multiple award winner since premiering at the Venice film festival in August, and now nominated for Independent Spirit awards for best feature, best director, and best screenplay, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a certain Oscar best picture contender, and deservedly so.

The movie begins on a wintry night in a Boston police station in 1976. In a room a priest, later identified as Father John Geoghan, is confronted with allegations of molesting young boys. The atmosphere is hushed and the case will be hushed. There will be no arraignment, no trial. Another priest representing the archdiocese is there to make sure of that. After a brief detention he quietly takes Father Geoghan away. To avoid public scandal the church would repeatedly promise to deal with its problems of “a few bad apples.” Lawyers were brought in to arrange private settlements in such cases; victims sworn to confidentiality agreements. Nothing must be allowed to upset the faithful or interfere with the church’s many good works.

Fast forward to July 2001, we’re immersed in the daily dynamic of The Boston Globe’s four-person “Spotlight” team of investigative reporters, in existence since 1970 and currently led by tough veteran editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton in his first role since his sensational performance in last year’s Oscar winner Birdman). The other members of this close-knit group are Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All were raised Catholic and, though lapsed, certainly understand the church’s heavy influence in their city, headed by avuncular Bernard Cardinal Law (played by Canadian Len Cariou) who is determined to see no evil, or at least to conceal it. The team answers to deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father famously oversaw the Watergate investigation at the Washington Post.

It’s a time of transition, with falling ad revenues an early harbinger of the digital revolution about to engulf the traditional broadsheet newspaper business. A new no-nonsense editor in chief has been brought in, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Florida native and unmarried Jew who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. Allegations had recently resurfaced that Geoghan, now defrocked, had abused more than 80 boys during his priesthood. The Globe ran several brief stories. Years earlier, the Globe had been sent substantial incriminating evidence by Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), the troubled head of a local group of abuse survivors, but had never pursued the matter seriously.

Baron sensed there was a much bigger story to probe, that many more priests were involved, and that a systematic cover-up led all the way to Cardinal Law’s desk. He ordered Spotlight to make this the main focus of their work. Naturally as they started digging, originally looking into allegations against 13 priests, the church got wind of it and hoped to at least contain the potential fallout. Baron agreed to a meeting with Cardinal Law who slyly made him a present as “an indication of how this city is run.” It was a Catechism of the Catholic Church. Baron wasn’t to be deterred and was backed by the Globe’s publisher. While recognizing that a majority of the paper’s subscribers were Catholic, surely getting to the bottom of this would interest them.

Investigative work can be a long hard slog, checking out every lead, pounding the pavement, searching through dusty archives. It’s more dogged day-in-day-out persistence than dramatic action. Without ever sensationalizing the pursuit, the movie does a tremendous job of giving Spotlight’s dedication to the task a propulsive energy. Everything inside and outside the newsroom feels convincingly authentic. Bradlee and Pfeiffer go after a slick lawyer, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), they suspect has been involved in a number of hushed-up settlements but cannot get any confirmation.

Rezendes, the most intense and driven of the bunch, works on an equally driven lawyer, Mitchel Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who is representing 86 of Geoghan’s victims. Typically these are kids from poor neighbourhoods or in situations that made them susceptible to the advances of predatory pedophiles whose clerical garb afforded them the status of godly authority figures. Rezendes is seeking details and personal interviews. Meanwhile the steady Carroll takes a lead in painstakingly combing through old church records and parish registers for clues as to possible cases — priests being quickly shuffled through parishes, listed as on “sick leave,” “unassigned” or referred to treatment centres.

As the numbers start adding up the team also contacts Richard Sipe, a former priest and Benedictine monk for 18 years, who as a trained psychotherapist has courted controversy by extensively researching issues of sexuality and celibacy in the church. (He is still active; see his website: They are taken aback when he suggests that as many as six per cent of all American priests may have abused minors. That would mean 90 priests in the Boston archdiocese. Eventually they will assemble files on 87, including one who had taught at a Catholic institution which Robinson attended.

When Spotlight becomes aware of important sensitive court documents from the Geoghan case that have been sealed, the paper goes to court to get access. The ever-tenacious Rezendes keeps pestering Garabedian until he finds a way to get hold of them even before the Irish Catholic judge rules in the paper’s favour. The documents are damning, proving that the hierarchy from Cardinal Law down knew about and covered up numerous instances of sexual abuse over decades, ignoring warnings as far back as 1962. These revelations also occurred around the time of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which obviously disrupted events though only temporarily. Robinson then delayed going public until they had a full story put together, including leaning on an old friend, a defence attorney, for further confirmation of cases involved.

The Globe waited till after Christmas, breaking the front-page investigation on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002, appropriately, as one says, the feast of the Epiphany. It would go on to publish some 600 related stories for which its journalists received a Pulitzer Prize. A total of 249 priests and brothers were implicated. The movie ends by noting that Cardinal Law resigned in December 2002 and was shunted to a major church in Rome. It then list hundreds of places were clerical sexual abuse cases have occurred around the globe.

Among the many strengths of Spotlight is the depth of character it accords these individuals and how they were affected by discovering an epidemic of abuses that, as Saviano puts it, were as much spiritual as physical since they destroyed faith. Pfeiffer had sometimes attended mass with her devout grandmother but stops going. Rezendes loses the hope that he might reconnect with his faith. Carroll discovers a treatment centre located a block from his home and worries about his young children and whether to warn others. Robinson feels some guilt when reminded that he had done little with information on abuse cases sent to him by MacLeish back in 1993.

For Slattery who plays Bradlee it’s personal: “I grew up Irish Catholic in Boston, and the parish priest would come to your house . . . people relied on the church for not just comfort but real support, day-to-day support for people who needed it so badly. And the fact that they preyed on the most vulnerable makes it that much more painful.”

Spotlight builds impact through the standout ensemble work of its actors and the meticulous nature of the filmmakers’ research. As McCarthy recalls, “It felt like we were doing what they did 12 years earlier, running around and pulling at threads and talking to people who maybe didn’t want to talk to us.” At the same time he worries about how hard it is to make a movie like this in a risk-averse culture. The project was “dead three times,” he says.

And the newspaper business has suffered even more as online sources proliferate. There are 20,000 fewer newspaper journalists in the U.S. than in 2002. In 2009 the Globe was even threatened with closure by its New York Times parent company unless major cuts were made. (The Globe and Mail’s former editor-in-chief John Stackhouse analyzes the trends in a new book, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution.)

The spotlight of a major motion picture on what is definitely not a good news story may be uncomfortable for the Catholic Church. But Spotlight isn’t an unfair attack. It is a serious, sober, fact-based account that, while including several poignant scenes describing instances of abuse, exercises admirable restraint and eschews any graphic images. Catholics also know that the time is past for defensive denials, that the consequences must be confronted openly, honestly and with compassion. That is the best response to this painful chapter.