Director Thomas McCarthy’s new film, “Spotlight,” plays like the Watergate of the Catholic church. Focusing on The Boston Globe investigative news team that, through a series of articles in 2002, exposed the cover-up of clergy pedophiles by Cardinal Bernard Law (and ultimately many other prelates and dioceses), it even includes Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), then deputy managing editor of the paper. (His father, Ben Sr., was the publisher of The Washington Post when the paper’s investigation of President Richard Nixon and his staff revealed their part in the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.)
The fact-based film is an engrossing, relevant, finely underplayed, and ultimately heartbreaking crime mystery.
The film opens with the Fr. John Geoghan case making news in 1999. The Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and Bradlee are tossing around the idea of doing more coverage when the new publisher, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), arrives. He thinks Spotlight, the oldest investigative team in U.S. journalism history, should look more closely at the clergy sex abuse scandal, going back to the Fr. James Porter case in the early ’90s.
The team contacts Phil Saviano (Neil Huff) of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He arrives with a box of information that he had given the Globe five years previously but they had ignored. He also provides a list of 10 people abused by priests.
This forms the basis from which a monumental story emerges about almost 80 priests in the Boston archdiocese who are accused of molesting children.
One of the team’s sources is attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who reluctantly asks one of dozens of clergy abuse victims he is defending in lawsuits against the Boston archdiocese to speak with Rezendes.
The victim explains that his abuser went after him because his family was poor and honored priests more than anyone else. How could you say anything against a priest? The victim allows his name to be used and the case builds.
When Baron makes a courtesy call to Law (Len Cariou), the cardinal says that the archdiocese and the Globe can work well together, but Baron turns him down. Before he leaves, Law gives Baron a gift: a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As the months wear on, a pattern of complicity emerges. The silent power of the Catholic church is felt everywhere. Parents and victims don’t speak out because it is suggested to them that it will hurt the church; a Catholic judge seals public records; the lead prosecutor, Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), reveals that abuse cases that have come to him are settled quietly and not prosecuted.
The Spotlight team elicits almost unbelievable interviews with abusers and others who go on the record. But they must have their information confirmed, especially the list of 80 priest abusers. They realize more and more that Law knew about the pedophiles and sent some for treatment and transferred others, leading to more abuse.
Ready to go to press in late 2001 with their explosive story, Baron slows them down, urging the team to go after the institution and its systematic policies and practices, and not just stopping with Law. This frustrates the team, and Rezendes screams out his horror that any delay could mean the abuse of even more children and that this cannot be allowed to happen.
By Epiphany Sunday in 2002, the first in a series of articles is published, with the archdiocese and Law declining to comment.
“Spotlight” is a film that needs to be taken seriously. Although policies are now in place, from the U.S. bishops’ conference to the Vatican, they have been slow in coming and implementing. At one point in the film, a layman friend of Law asks one of the Globe team about the journalistic ethics of going public with such a story and the reporter answers: What about the ethics of not doing so?
There can be no doubt that The Boston Globe did a great deal of good by exposing Law’s cover-up of what he knew, when he knew it, and what he failed to do: protect the people of God in his care. The Boston story, however, was the tip of the iceberg, as closing credits of the film show. This is the bigger story that Baron was after.
Some may judge Ruffalo’s monologue reaction to the slowdown imposed by Baron as melodramatic, but it made me cry. It cut right through the excuses and the cover-up, and revealed the pain and violence of the abuse, as if he himself were a victim, too.
Schreiber, as the laconic, tough, incisive Baron, is perfect. All the performances are spot-on and the ensemble cast deserves recognition, as does McCarthy for directing and co-writing with Josh Singer. There is a Catholic “inside” sensibility to the film that I think comes from McCarthy’s Catholic background, as well as that of several cast members.
While the story is compelling in itself, there is another dimension that the characters discuss in the film: their own disillusion with the Catholic church that some of them were raised in. Rezendes admits he had stopped going to Mass before this story broke but that he always thought he would go back. But how?
What does this tragic tale say to the people of God? Do we walk away in the face of such a great betrayal and scandal? I think most people have stayed and are working to be part of the solution, realizing that everyone in the church, especially those in the service of authority, have feet of clay.
But I know many who cannot bring themselves to come back, or might come to Mass but that’s about all. The powerful subculture that permitted Law and other prelates to move abusive priests around and hide their knowledge of what those priests were doing is unfathomable to those who do not belong to it.
“Spotlight” shines a strong reflection back on the Globe team’s failure to pay attention to the growing scandal when they had the chance, sources and opportunity. They, too, failed along the way, and they admit it.
I thought it was a little strange that Michael Paulsen, the Globe religion reporter who wrote articles about the scandal, too, did not appear in the film, though the team mentions him. I was living in Boston during this time and his articles are the ones I remember. He shared the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with the Spotlight team. (It could be that another production is in the works featuring his perspective in the saga.)
I am writing this review at the Venice Film Festival in Italy, where I am serving a part of the SIGNIS Catholic jury. The film is not screening in competition, but I went to the first press screening and the applause was extensive. When the follow-up paragraphs rolled at the end of the film saying that Law resigned in December 2002 and was reassigned to be rector of St. Mary Major in Rome, the audience, made up largely of the Italian press, roared with laughter, because that’s what the church does — move problematic people around and promote them.
At the premiere screening in Venice, another jury member told me that the applause went on and on and included a standing ovation — the first for any film shown at the festival this year.
Regardless of what anyone says, The Boston Globe did the Catholic church a huge favor. “Spotlight” reminds us to keep vigil on ourselves as church, that we will be the Christians we say we are, that we do not choose the institution over God’s people, especially children, the poor and the vulnerable. The press and cinema, in this case, are a blessing.
[Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. “Spotlight,” an Open Road Films production, opens in theaters Nov. 6.]