Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James star in a scene from the movie Spotlight, a look into the real-life events leading up to the disclosure of clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. CNS photo/Open Road Films

Film puts Boston clergy abuse crisis in Spotlight

By  John Mulderig, Catholic News Service
  • November 14, 2015

The clergy abuse-themed drama Spotlight is a movie no Catholic will want to see. Whether it’s a film many mature Catholics ought to see is a different question entirely.

This hard-hitting journalism procedural — which inescapably invites comparison with 1976’s All the President’s Men — recounts the real-life events that led up to the public disclosure, in early 2002, of a shocking pattern of priestly misconduct within the Archdiocese of Boston. In the process, the equally disturbing concealment of such wrongdoing on the part of high-ranking Church officials also was laid bare.

One of the picture’s themes is the way in which Beantown’s inward-looking, small-town mentality contributed to the long-standing cover-up. For the supposed good of the community, locals suppressed the knowledge of what was happening, subconsciously choosing not to see what was transpiring just behind the scenes.

So it’s appropriate that the whitewash begins to peel away with the arrival of a stranger to the Hub, the newly imported editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Marty’s outsider status isn’t just based on his geographical origins; he’s also Jewish.

Perplexed that his paper has devoted so little attention to the earliest cases in what would become, over time, an avalanche of legal actions against clerics, Marty commissions the investigative unit of the title, which specializes in in-depth investigations of local stories, to dig deeper.

Led by even-keeled Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team — which also includes tightly wound Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), intrepid Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and relentless research whiz Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — uncovers a widespread and sickening scandal involving scores of clergymen and hundreds of young victims.

Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy maintains a taut rhythm as he focuses primarily on the dogged professionalism required to breach the walls of secrecy surrounding a respected, and therefore protected, institution. And his script, penned with Josh Singer, apportions blame across a broad spectrum that includes the Globe itself — John Slattery plays veteran editor Ben Bradlee Jr., whose semi-willful blindness to the problem typifies the attitude discussed above.

Like most of his colleagues, Slattery is a former Catholic, distanced from, but not — initially at least — embittered toward, the faith in which he was raised. Witnessing the further fraying of the reporters’ already fragile ties to the Church adds to the overwhelming sense of grief Catholic viewers will feel throughout Spotlight. Yet this generally accurate chronicle can provide them with a valuable insight into one of the darkest chapters in American ecclesiastical history.

The movie is open to a few criticisms, large and small. The portrayal of Boston’s then-archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), is predictably negative. But it also includes details that are subject to interpretation.

Thus Cardinal Law’s gift to Marty of a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is treated as both a religious and social snub. Yet Cardinal Law played an important role in translating that landmark text into English, so his gift may have been motivated more by a sense of pride in one of the most significant accomplishments of his career than by a desire to cut the newcomer down to size.

Much more significantly, the screenplay’s uncritical adoption of the results of research conducted by ex-priest A.W. Richard Sipe (a figure heard but not seen) opens its analysis to legitimate questioning.

The thesis that the scandal was the inevitable outcome of the Latin Church’s tradition of priestly celibacy — a discipline Sipe maintains is routinely violated by fully half the clergy, thus creating a culture of secrecy among them — is ill-founded, to say the least. To dispute that theory, however, is not at all to downplay the horrifying nature of what unfolds under this otherwise painfully illuminating spotlight.

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