Priest Scandal Movie: Painful, Disturbing, and Surprisingly Fair

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This dialogue sums up the primary lesson of the film Spotlight, currently playing in a major nationwide release. The movie, “based on actual events” and starring Michael Keaton, chronicles a Boston Globe four-person investigative team’s discovery of Cardinal Bernard Law and the Archdiocese of Boston’s cover-up of the priest sexual abuse scandal. The title of the film, taken from the name of the investigative team, of course does double-duty as a reference to a painful journalistic laser beam cast on the priest sexual abuse scandal when the Globe story broke on January 6, 2002.

“It takes a village to abuse a child” refers to the manner in which priest sexual abuse of young boys was mishandled, ignored, and covered up by clergy, lawyers, school principals, teachers, public relations personnel—and even family members of the victims themselves. In other words, as the Globe editor Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, opined, “This isn’t about one bishop; it’s about the system itself.” The Spotlight team is committed to exposing a broken, dysfunctional ecclesiastical system that, instead of de-frocking offending priests or turning them over to law enforcement, often simply reassigned them while settling victims’ cases out of court in confidentiality agreements.

If you are a devout Catholic, as is this film reviewer, and believe that no matter what, the gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s Church—sitting though Spotlight may be the longest two hours you’ll ever spend in a theatre. You will not be able to exit the multi-plex reassured that this is a horrible movie, a hastily thrown-together thoughtless Hollywood hatchet job produced by people who obviously loathe the Catholic Church and are just out to get her. Instead this is an intelligent, well-written, acted, and directed movie. Due to the subject matter, Catholic film-goers cannot help but feel Spotlight is rubbing their noses into one of the most demoralizing, pathetic, and despicable episodes in the history of Catholicism.

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Most secular film reviews note that Spotlight is really a story about investigative journalism, and how effective such journalism can be in disclosing corruption in high places and being a force for justice. Not a few have compared the film to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Spotlight’s story begins when a new editor, Marty Baron, insists that the special investigative team pursue the priest sex abuse issue in the Archdiocese of Boston. One reason the paper printed very few stories on the subject was because a court file containing evidence that Cardinal Law knew about certain priests abusing young boys, yet did very little to stop it, was under a court seal. Under Baron’s leadership the Globe sues the archdiocese to force the disclosure of the documents.

spotlight_posterThe movie highlights the fact that it took an outsider like Baron, a Jew and non-Bostonian, to take on the archdiocese in contrast to the Spotlight team, who are all non-practicing or lapsed Catholics who have lived in Boston all their lives. Sacha, the lone female on the team, played by Rachel McAdams, attends Mass with her devout grandmother, but only to keep her “nanna” company. At first the reporters believe that the scandal involves only one notorious priest, then after interviewing the leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests) they learn that it could be as many as thirteen. An attorney who represented victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese and had them settled out of court told the reporters he knew of twenty priests involved; finally, an ex-priest who worked at a rehab facility for clergy involved in abuse, tells the Spotlight team the cover-up, extending back to 1962, may concern as many as 90 priests.

The action of the film is focused on how the Spotlight reporters doggedly gathered its evidence. They seek out victims to interview, tediously pour over diocesan priest directories, talk to priests guilty of abuse, and plead with attorneys who handled victim’s cases to come forward. The drama climaxes when one of the reporters, Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, manages to obtain court records containing letters of complaint to Cardinal Law from the parents of victims and from someone as high up as an auxiliary bishop. An attorney who defended the archdiocese, moved by a pang of conscience, verifies a list containing the names of dozens of priests guilty of abuse.

The leader of SNAP and even the attorney who settled victim cases out of court had given the newspaper evidence of clergy abuse years ago, but the evidence was essentially ignored. Just before the big story is about to break we learn that even the leader of the Spotlight team, Keaton’s character Robbie Robinson, ignored the potential scandal. When the victims’ attorney told the Globe about the twenty priests suspected of abuse, Robinson himself, when he was Metro editor, buried a story about it in the newspaper’s Metro section. Apparently when an editor wants a story to die he buries it deep down in the Metro pages. Thus even the Globe is part of that village it takes to abuse a child—a village afraid, apathetic, or too distracted to pay attention.

This kind of honesty is one of the reasons Spotlight manages a balanced approach to a touchy subject. To its credit the film avoids lionizing the Spotlight reporters. They do not come off as haughty, self-righteous finger-pointers crusading against an innately corrupt Church and hypocritical Christian religion. It is also important to note that Spotlight almost completely avoids treating the priest scandal as a pedophile issue in order not to blame homosexuality for the problem. Indeed, it may actually do the opposite. There’s a well-acted scene between one of the victims and reporter Sacha. They meet at a restaurant and the victim, who explains that he is gay, describes how a hip “street” priest who reached out to the kids in his low-income neighborhood invited him to the priest’s apartment. There the clergyman seduced the twelve-year-old and introduced him to his first homosexual acts. Spotlight also does not blame priestly celibacy as the cause of clergy sex-abuse. That issue is raised only briefly. One might expect the film to show flashbacks that dramatize priests abusing boys, but it avoids exploiting its subject matter and sensationalizing the sex abuse scandal.

However, Spotlight may be accused of bias in at least one respect. The film is told entirely from the journalists’ perspective. Cardinal Law is certainly the “bad guy.” He is featured in the film briefly and, while one cannot say he is depicted as inhuman, he comes off as a wooden, scripted, rather stuffy churchman. The film makes no attempt to explain why seminaries were infiltrated by men with same-sex attraction, or pedophile tendencies. It just barely begins to explore the subject when Sacha knocks on the door of a de-frocked priest who justifies himself by saying he never raped anyone, though he himself was once the victim of rape. The movie never explores why bishops handled the clergy sex abuse crisis in the way they did, covering it up, re-assigning offending priests and so on. The closest we come as to why no one wanted to expose the archdiocese are brief statements made by an archdiocesan representative who tells Robinson “everyone depends on the Church, the Church does so much good” hoping to persuade him from pursuing the story any further. Perhaps, however, any excuse or attempt at explanation would come off looking pretty lame. After all, how do you explain priests, whose lives are supposed to be completely dedicated to a life of holiness, called to live the highest ideals of love and truth in the pattern of Christ himself, seducing and raping boys in acts of grotesque perversion? The gay victim in the film summed up the offense so rightly: “It’s not just the physical abuse, it’s the spiritual abuse. The priest robs you of your faith.”

Spotlight could be used by the enemies of the Church because, while its focus is on how the Spotlight team exposed the Church’s mishandling of clergy abuse, there are no scenes of redemption. The film doesn’t deny that there are good priests, but it never mentions them. Likewise, it never shows clergy sorry or repentant, and it never shows Catholics remaining true to their faith despite the scandal. The filmgoer, and certainly the Catholic filmgoer, will find the movie unforgiving; in fact, the last images of the film are seemingly endless lists of different cities all over the world where clergy abuse has occurred. The film does not let the audience know that the Catholic Church has effectively responded to the clergy abuse crisis—taken serious steps to make sure nothing like it will ever happen again. Certainly the film makers believe nothing would have been done without the Boston Globe!

When all is said and done, however, we cannot blame Spotlight for drudging up this scandal. Clergy abuse happened. The Boston Globe, among other outlets, exposed it. That is the film’s subject. It does no good for us to blame a well-made movie when what the Church needs is simply to get her act together as God intends.

An experience of the great English actor Alec Guinness should illustrate this point. In France he filmed a Fr. Brown movie, he in the title role. After filming ceased for the day, Guinness, still dressed in a priest’s cassock, strolled back to his lodgings. A little French boy who mistook the actor for a real priest came up and, without saying a word, took the hand of the actor and walked along beside him. Guinness, so moved by how a little boy could so easily and so freely trust a priest, later entered the Church.


  • Monica Miller

    Monica Miller, Ph.D., is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts from Southern Illinois University and graduate degrees in Theology from Loyola University and Marquette University. She is the author of several books including The Theology of the Passion of the Christ (Alba House) and, most recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road) and Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press).

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