Media review | April 1, 2016

Shining a light on painful truths

Spotlight follows the Boston Globe investigation that uncovered decades of child sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic Church. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) heads an investigative team known as Spotlight. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is the new editor who has taken the reins of the paper. As an outsider, he is there to shake things up in the newsroom. As a Jewish newcomer to the largely Catholic community, he is shaking things up outside the newsroom as well.

The action begins when Schreiber asks Robinson to investigate charges of local clergy abuse. Robinson is quite hesitant to do so in the powerful church culture of Boston, the only Catholic-majority town in the US. The journalists are not certain they can successfully pursue this story here. Indeed, as events unfold the journalists encounter frequent obstacles and cover-ups that ultimately lead to the highest legal, government, and religious levels.

Spotlight is one of the best movies about journalism ever made. It is reminiscent of All the President’s Men, yet presents an even more compelling—though grim—drama. Like journalism itself, it sweats the small details as the story builds methodically, much like steadfastly pursuing a lead. Though the outcome is well known, navigating the process generates incredible suspense as the film builds toward its climactic scenes.

Spotlight underscores the important role that journalists play without romanticizing or venerating them. In the end, it is not the reporters but the story and the reporting itself that are championed. Yet this kind of reporting involves patiently developing relationships with reluctant sources and tenaciously dogging obstructionists. The investigation entails knocking on doors, sifting through dusty archives, or just waiting to talk to officials, always painstakingly trying to confirm what they suspect but can’t prove.

Child abuse and the Church of the Brethren

The Church of the Brethren has addressed child protection and offers numerous related resources, including  sample congregational child protection policies (scroll down to find them). April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Worship resources include prayers, such as the following:

We gather, O God, as your people in this place called “sanctuary.” We gather aware that for some this is a place of safety and peace and comfort. We gather knowing that for others, this is a place that has been found to be dangerous. It is our heartfelt desire, as followers of your son Jesus, to have in this place, a true sanctuary. Begin to grow that seed of safety in our hearts so that it will blossom into every corner of our lives together. Amen. (Marilyn Lerch)

Director Tom McCarthy, known for character studies such as The Station Agent and The Visitor, has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast. Rachel McAdams’ amicable Sacha Pfeiffer is perfectly understated, while Mark Ruffalo’s frenetic and resolute Mike Rezendes is especially memorable. Stanley Tucci plays victims lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, an Armenian who is also an outsider in the the majority Catholic community. It is said the best way to illuminate complicated legal and procedural details in a film is to hire a first-rate actor and have him explain it to another character in the movie. Tucci shines in this role, as he lays out the minefields that obstruct the ugly truth of this scandal.

We want to know more about these characters but are granted few glimpses into their personal worlds. Rather, we only witness the toll this story takes on their lives as the immensity of the scandal gradually dawns upon them. We only observe their silence, dismay, and weary body language as they wade through the ethical morass and extensive cover up.

At one point, Garabedian states, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Many in the Catholic Church and broader Boston community were complicit in the cover-ups, private mediations, and victim payoffs that kept these cases outside the court system. Yet the film is not self-aggrandizing; editor Robinson has his own realization of complicity in missing the story that was there all along.

Spotlight illuminates how it is the critical perspective of outsiders that may awaken communities, religious and otherwise, to failure and blindness. Yet Spotlight is neither exploitive nor self-congratulatory. Neither does it primarily focus on individual perpetrators or victims. Rather, it elucidates the systemic policies and practices that allow the victimization to take place, as well as the grinding effort required to bring such activity to light.

Near the end of the film, Rezendes observes some victimized children waiting in Garabedian’s office. The timing of the scene drives home how the the discovery of each abusing priest signifies immense suffering among the most vulnerable and defenseless. The film concludes by noting that 249 priests were implicated in the Boston area and that over 1,000 victims had come forth. This is followed by a lengthy list of other cities in the US and abroad where the Catholic Church was found to have concealed clergy sexual abuse of children.

The extensive investigation and coverage by the Boston Globe was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

About the movie

Spotlight has won the Oscar for best picture. Theatrical release: Nov. 6, 2015. DVD release: Feb. 23, 2016. Running time: 127 minutes. Director: Tom McCarthy. MPAA rating: R for some language, including sexual references.

Michael McKeever is professor and chair of Biblical and Theological Studies at Judson University, where he founded and directs the Reel Conversations film series. He is a member of Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, Elgin, Illinois.