“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci, offers this blunt assessment to a skeptical Boston Globe reporter in the recently released movie, Spotlight.
Spotlight is named after the investigative team at the Boston Globe, who in 2002 published a series of explosive articles uncovering a decades-long scandal of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Ultimately it involved over 70 local priests, more than a 1000 victims, and was only possible with the collusion of Cardinal Bernard Law. The reportage ultimately won the Boston Globe a Pulitzer and led to revelations of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church in Dioceses around the globe.
This Oscar worthy movie is an outlier in an era of big-budget superhero fare. A solid procedural with a meticulous depiction of the hard work good reporting requires – there are no smoking guns. The ensemble cast, led by Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber, depict the real-life reporters who were talented, but very ordinary people, doing their jobs. As the investigation unfolds, they discover with equal part horror and fascination how deep the scandal goes.
The film is careful never to adopt the mantle of crusade. In fact one of the more striking facets of spotlight is the tone and self-reflection. There is never the feeling that an injustice has been put to an end, but rather only that reform has been allowed to begin. And there is also the self-examination and humility amongst the journalists themselves. At one point Globe editor Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, questions whether he might have been complicit in some way since he had glossed over reports of clergy abuse years earlier.
I have spent much of my career defending the victims of sexual abuse by priests and can confirm from experience that Spotlight was alarmingly accurate in themes that seem to reoccur in clergy abuse cases everywhere. These are never isolated cases. Priests succeed in abusing children because the culture of the church and communities enables them. Spotlight shows the intense clannishness that existed in Boston and exalted the Catholic Church to silence the victims of clergy abuse. The movie also shows unflinchingly how priests manipulate the Church’s power to isolate and groom victims. “How do you say no to a priest,” one of the victims offers in an interview, “its like saying no to God.”
One of the most important moments in the film comes when Marty Baron, the Executive Editor of the Globe played by Shreiber, resists the urge for a few spectacular headlines and instructs the Spotlight team to investigate systemic dimensions the Church and to find out why this horror was ultimately allowed to continue.
Spotlight is also notable for a stripped down aesthetic, both visually and in the actor’s performances. There are no “big” reveals or grand speeches. Instead there is the steady accumulation of facts and small moments that collectively form an intensely emotional movie. Director Tom McCarthy is wise to not avoid contradictions and allow the viewer to make their own moral judgments. The abuse wouldn’t have been uncovered without the work of the Boston Globe reporters, but why had they ignored the story earlier? The Catholic Church knowingly harbored predator priests. Why did community leaders choose to look the other way?
These are themes that continue today and sexual abuse cases by Catholic priests continues to be uncovered. In every new case it is usually revealed that the abuser was known to the church, yet the church chose to harbor the abuser rather than aid the victim.
Progress is being made, but Spotlight shows us that it is a long and arduous process that requires dedication and hard work.
For the past 18 years a private citizen, John Wojnowski, has stood in front of the Vatican embassy in Washington D.C. while holding up signs —“Vatican Hides Pedophiles,” “Catholics Cowards.” At the end of Spotlight a postscript reveals that Cardinal Bernard Law was never prosecuted for his complicity in sheltering pedophile priests in Boston, and was instead reassigned to a post in the Vatican, where he remains to this day.
Cardinal Law has never spoken publically of his role or responsibility in the sexual abuse cases in the Boston diocese. John Wojnowski meanwhile, continues his vigil outside the Vatican embassy.