“Spotlight,” an independent film based on a column of the same name in The Boston Globe, is about the cover-up of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The film gets a lot right, from the ensemble cast to the embedded messages about secrets, insiders/outsiders and child sexual abuse (CSA). It is clearly an Oscar contender.
On the evening of November 2nd at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, Calif., director and co-writer Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer explained their two-and-a-half-year crafting process that explored The Boston Globe’s reporting for the column. The Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work demonstrated, in the parlance of the writers, that it took a village to cover up clergy sexual abuse.
Confidential settlements, parish transfers, priests on sick leave or awaiting assignment, and assurances of limited liability all collide here to pique the curiosity of the newly appointed Jewish editor from Miami, Marty Baron, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, who wonders aloud why The Globe had not really pursued this before.
The answer is not a mystery to the insiders at the paper, who worry about suing Cardinal Law, upsetting their own family members’ and readership’s traditions and being leaned on to look the other way. The writers pointed out that they wanted to show that it really took an outsider to see the importance of this story for the Boston community.
“Spotlight” devises overheard phone conversations with former priest, turned therapist and researcher, Richard Sipe, who becomes the vehicle for explaining how partial compliance with celibacy vows created a culture of secrecy and the opportunity for CSA to expand. The film also demonstrates how not all children were equal targets. Particularly disconcerting was the priest-predators’ preying on poor young boys with missing fathers whose mothers not only welcomed priests’ interest, but once their sons disclosed abuse, they hospitably received visiting archdiocese negotiators, closing the deal on institutional betrayal and secrecy.
The actors portraying victims help the audience understand the reasons behind freezing, not telling and complying. Most importantly, these are the voices of grown men, who are very compelling. Readers who want a deeper look at how young children’s accounts of CSA were discredited in the same timeframe of the clergy CSA scandal should read Ross Cheit’s 2014 book Witch-Hunt Narrative: Politics, Psychology and the Sexual Abuse of Children.
The arc of “Spotlight” follows the inner journey of an outsider attorney representing the plaintiffs, played by Stanley Tucci, and reporter Michael Resendes, played by Mark Ruffalo. Both show the single-minded focus and persistence that CSA investigation exacts on advocates; both connect on how the establishment has excluded them in many ways.
Another important journey is that of Globe editor Walter Robinson, portrayed by Michael Keaton. As an insider, he has to grapple with having had some of this information several years earlier, when he only gave it passing coverage at The Globe. His acknowledgement of this prompts outsider Baron to remind us all that, “with a story, for a long time, we stumble around in the dark. Then, when the light comes, there is plenty of blame to go around, but in the end, this is really good reporting.”
The value of a movie like “Spotlight” is that it prompts the viewers to ponder when they have stumbled around in the dark and eventually found the light, and to then ask themselves what they did as a result. It also begs a comparison to our own Los Angeles community where Victoria Kim and Harriet Ryan of the Los Angeles Times did some impressive reporting. The reporters earned an award from the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) for their 2013 work excavating Rodger Mahoney and Pope Benedict’s involvement in secretly appropriating burial maintenance funds to settlements paid out to CSA victims. They made it clear how initial cover-ups beget so many more.
A powerful illustration of the scale of the cover-ups comes as the movie closes, when four full screens list the many cities, nationally and internationally, where the clergy CSA scandal was suppressed. Hopefully with “Spotlight” we have learned that it often takes an outsider to hold the insiders accountable, until we finally get it right ourselves.
Colleen Friend, Ph.D., LCSW is an associate professor and director of the Child Abuse and Family Violence Institute at California State University Los Angeles.