The Irish singer Sinead O’Connor was asked, in 2010, if she felt vindicated by the revelation of a worldwide sexual abuse and rape scandal in the Catholic Church. That was 18 years after O’Connor ripped a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in protest of the Church’s cover-up of sex abuse in Ireland.
That scandal had not reached US shores in 1992, and O’Connor was pilloried for her actions. But by 2010, the scale of this scandal had begun to unfold, and O’Connor’s protest on SNL took on a new light. So Linda Holmes asked her, did she feel vindicated? She said this:
“It’s not about me or anyone else being vindicated. Who is vindicated are the victims, it really isn’t about anyone else. It’s more important to realize that they’ve been vindicated, and believed, and treated with respect….the reason people were so shocked in the States, quite rightly, no one could imagine that this could be happening.”
In 1976, in Boston, a priest was arrested for abusing a boy. The priest, unafraid, walks into the police station. Two cops watch him enter, and one wonders what the arraignment will look like for a case like this. “What arraignment?” the other one says. The priest leaves the station in the custody of Church officials. So opens the new film Spotlight.
For the next two decades in Boston, reports would circulate about abusive priests. A network for victims abused by priests was created. A few outspoken, brave individuals sought to bring attention to the rape of children that was taking place in Boston’s parishes. An Irish singer would rip a photo of the Pope, declaring the Church the real enemy of the people. But no one took notice. Not really. No one believed it, or no one wanted to.
How the sexual abuse and rape scandal was eventually brought to light is the subject of writer/director Tom McCarthy’s new film. Spotlight tells the story of the team of investigative journalists who spent 2001 and 2002 investigating Boston’s Catholic Church, and exposing the depth of child abuse and institutional cover up that had been taking place for half a century.
Spotlight is the investigative reporting section of the Boston Globe. The team consists of Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The team works in isolation at the Globe, often keeping their reporting completely secret from the editorial staff of the paper, with the exception of section editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) and the paper’s new boss, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber).
Baron is a recent arrival in Boston, from Miami, and he tasks Spotlight with looking into the Church. Bradlee opposes the idea. He thinks it’s a dead lead, and will only result in the Church’s anger with the Globe, and thus, a loss of readers from their heavily Catholic subscribers.
Spotlight’s investigative drama will involve lawyers, church officials, the head of SNAP survivors network. What the film doesn’t feature is priests. McCarthy works with the assumption that audiences do not need to learn that the rape of children is vile; this film is concerned with matters of epistemology and revelation: what do we know, when did we know, and when should we have known what was happening in our own churches.
Most of Spotlight consists of reporters talking to people and each other. Editors want progress reports, reporters want names, Church officials want to dodge reporters questions. McCarthy’s screenplay depicts an authenticity in its newsroom and reportage: even when covering one of the biggest stories in years, most of the work is dull. Sacha Pfeiffer knocks on doors, finding no one wants to talk, while Mike Rezendes sits outside a records office waiting for a judge to release documents.
That the film captures the weight of the subject through the tedium of the work is one of the great directing successes of the year. Keaton and McAdams and Ruffalo and James are all asked to embody the professionalism of journalism with the slow building horror of what they are discovering. Sacha Pfeiffer can no longer attend Mass with her aging mother; Rezendes, in one of the film’s best scenes, discusses how he left the Church in his youth, but always thought he would come back to the faith when he was older. “This could have been any of us,” he says, no longer able to keep it together.
Watching Spotlight, it is hard to keep it together. This is one of the best journalism films since All the President’s Men, but underneath this story is not political scandal, or personal tragedy. Every now and then, audiences are pulled from the investigative drama and reminded, in horrific fashion, that this is a movie about the rape of children on a massive scale. Hundreds of children, dozens of priests, and an institution built to protect the rapists.
The tragedy of McCarthy’s film, though, is not just the sexual abuse. It is the handling of knowledge that surrounds it. So much information comes to light in Spotlight, so many hands have been involved in ignoring this scandal, that no one, not even the Spotlight team, can claim innocence or ignorance.
McCarthy’s film argues that the American public knew what we knew about the Church scandal not when the information was ready to come to light, but when the press was ready to believe it; when the right team came along and told the whole story as it needed telling. We had chances. Decades of opportunities. But as Sinead O’Connor said, no one could imagine that this was happening.
“If it takes a village to raise a child,” says a character in Spotlight, “then it takes a village to abuse one.” It’s a horrible sentiment, and a confrontational one, given that no one wants to share responsibility for an act as despicable as the molestation of children. But that argument is at the heart of Spotlight. And the film makes a strong case that there is plenty of culpability to go around. Otherwise, we would have known, and stopped it, long before we did.