Spotlight is a tribute to the nobility of investigative journalism, and a powerful film about tragic events.
This film gives tribute to the Boston Globe investigative team’s efforts to end a horrific evil; it’s an honest portrayal of the courage of survivors and the importance of speaking out so that abuse of power—both human and spiritual—cannot continue.
Spotlight is faithful to its title: the film focuses a beam of cinematic light on the journey of the Boston Globe’s investigative team in uncovering the devastating story of the pattern of Catholic clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston and beyond. Spotlight is gripping but restrained, a powerful film where even the cinematography reinforces the sense of tragedy and a need to step back to uncover the truth and make some sense of it. This well-made film gives homage to the best of investigative reporting and unhesitatingly acknowledges the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse, honoring its survivors.
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The film really focuses on the discovery of the reported story from the investigative team’s perspective. It does not take us on any side trips: not on any one person’s journey, not on particular Church officials, not on any specific survivors or abuse story, not on sensationalism. In many ways, the film is so understated, it seems almost factual. (However, like any film based on real-life events, details are oversimplified and events compressed.) Written and directed so that the mainly understated acting is most effective, the film enables us to remember the real heroes here: the survivors, and those who spoke out, whether they were listened to or not.
The brilliance of Tom McCarthy's direction and script in focusing so closely on the investigation helps us to see many aspects of what happened. The way the investigative team discovers the story, and how that story evolves in their eyes become the movements of the film’s plot. The team begins by researching one particular case already in court at the beginning of the film, and whether Cardinal Law knew what was going on with that specific case. Then they focus on how many priests in the Archdiocese have sexually abused minors. Next the focus of the story switches to whether Cardinal Law ignored or covered up multiple instances of clergy sexual abuse. The final story of the investigative team becomes what is first articulated by the publisher of the newspaper: a systemic problem in the Church in which clergy sexual abuse was covered up and thus able to be repeated.
Because the filmmakers made the wise choice to make the unveiling of the story the plot of the film, we as viewers:
- gain a sense of the scope of the problem as the investigative team kept clarifying the focus of the story: from individual priest, to individual actions of a bishop, to the numbers that pointed to a pattern, to the systemic ignoring and covering up of the problem so that hundreds of children would continue to be abused by the same pedophiles
- have a sense of the complexity of the issues
- take in the story piece by piece, as the investigators do, which helps us as viewers to more easily absorb it
The film takes us just far enough in each direction so that we gain a real sense of the scope of the tragedy, the various effects and consequences on people’s lives (personally, spiritually, developmentally, legally, religiously, etc.). Although we don’t get to know the personal stories of any of the reporters, each member of the investigative team at some point struggles to take in a new discovery or realization. These subtle moments also allow the viewer to wrestle with the scandal on his or her own terms.
Spotlight is not entertainment: it is unswerving in its focus on the tragedy, which gives a seriousness to the storytelling. Two survivors share their horrific stories in some detail, but the detail is kept to a minimum; much is left unsaid. Story-wise, we follow all three investigative reporters and their editor and the aspects of the story they investigate: court cases, survivors, priests who abused minors, a school, lawyers, and a Church spokesperson assisting in the cover-up. Emotionally, we cannot get too invested because each reporter has more than one story to follow. Even visually, the film keeps its distance so we can always keep in mind the larger story.
The spiritual side of the abuse—the scandal, the “death of the soul” involved in a child’s betrayal by the priest who represents God to them, is also handled well, through one survivor telling his story, and through the way two of the reporters personally struggle with the scandal in the light of their own faith which, even as lapsed Catholics, still influences their view. As each member of the investigative team continues to search for proof and verification, he or she seems to become more and more weighed down by the tragedy in excellent, finely-drawn acting, especially by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams.
Another well-done aspect of the film is how it highlights the tragic consequences of ignoring evil, of good people doing nothing or very little, despite suspicions or knowledge of evil. “It takes a village to abuse a child,” says Stanley Tucci’s character, Mitchell Garabedien, in one of the best lines of the film. At a certain point, the Globe investigators also question themselves: why didn’t they tell this story sooner? How could they have ignored or overlooked “pieces” of the story that had come to them during the previous decade?
Other thoughtful Catholic perspectives on #SpotlightMovie:
Signis Film Jury Statement
Bishop Robert Barron gives his take
Review of Sr. Helena Burns, FSP
Father Roger J. Landry's Saturday Night Reparation
Should Catholics go see this film? Perhaps. It is a helpful, well-told reflection on a tragic reality that may help viewers gain an understanding of what happened. It is a powerful and tragic example of the corruption of human societies that are ostensibly dedicated to doing good, highlighting the human and sinful aspects of some Church members.
Spotlight tells a story that needed to be told and even more, needs to be remembered:
- To validate the stories of the survivors who were forced to undergo such suffering and still have the courage to seek justice, reparation, or at the very least, acknowledgment of the terrible tragedy
- To help all of us to remember to act when we see a child in danger or suspect that a child is suffering
- To continue to remember and support the survivors. Their lives have been, to some extent, shaped by the betrayal, abandonment, and abuse they underwent. Some people talk about sexual abuse as a killing of the soul. Saying “I’m sorry” once is not enough, because healing is a lifelong process.
If you intend to see Spotlight, here are a few notes to take in with you.
Many characters in the film use the term “the Church” as the subject of sentences describing the clergy sexual abuse and the cover-up. They do not distinguish the various meanings that we as Catholics give to those two words. As Catholics, when we speak of the Church, we might be referring to:
- the Mystical Body of Christ, the divine-human institution that Christ founded and is head of, and all of the many members striving to be in communion with him
- the human, visible institution (with all its members, saints and sinners, physical churches, works of mercy, acts of virtue, and sinfulness)
- the leadership of the Church (e.g. the hierarchy)
Although the dialogue ignores these various meanings, the characters use the term primarily to mean the Church as a human institution, and in some cases, the hierarchy. Thus while “the Church” is sometimes used pejoratively in the film, it didn’t seem to be malicious. Rather, this usage assumes that viewers are familiar with the diversity of members of the Church. It also acknowledges that because of how large a role the Catholic Church has had in the daily life of the people in Boston, the corruption that developed also had wide-reaching power.
Because the film is focused solely from the perspective of the investigative team, it is unable to answer many questions surrounding this tragedy: why clergy sexual abuse happens at all; what is true justice for the survivors of the abuse; how much did various clergy/hierarchy/Catholic lawyers know; how can the Church today assist in the healing of the survivors?
One issue the film could have covered more is the prevalence of child sexual abuse in society, much more so than in the Church. Clergy sexual abuse is a particularly horrific betrayal and evil which should never be tolerated, but it also reflects a larger societal problem. However, simply watching this film already becomes a reminder that one must be vigilant to protect children from abuse, sexual abuse particularly.
While the film doesn’t mention it (and certainly didn’t need to), one effect of the Spotlight team’s coverage is that the Catholic Church now has perhaps the best, most proactive child-protective policy of any institution in the world, to prevent and protect children from sexual abuse.
How To View Spotlight as a Person of Faith
A number of years after the full scale of the clergy abuse scandal was revealed, well-known spiritual writer Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, wrote an insightful article, On Carrying a Scandal Biblically, that offered wisdom, faith, and guidance for any Catholic, wherever he or she stood in relation to the sexual abuse scandal. In his reflection, Father Rolheiser raised nine key points, many of them actions to take or attitudes to develop. Because of the respect that the filmmakers brought to this tragic story, viewing Spotlight could help viewers to live some of these steps of carrying a scandal biblically. The film can help us to name what happened, call us to greater compassion, invite us to offer healing (rather than being defensive), help us to see how we can use the humiliation of the scandal as a way to grow in graced humility, and to ponder as Mary did, so that our response to others’ pain and anger can be transformed and offer genuine possibility for healing.
If you feel drawn to seeing this well-made film, I encourage you to visit or re-visit Father Rolheiser’s article as a helpful companion to reflect on both the film and tragedy as a person of faith.