Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 8 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Lord Acton’s famous observation (which was part of his letter to an English bishop) applies to the Church, as well as to politics. In director Tom McCarthy’s film the Catholic Church is the power in Boston, as we see in this taut drama, now being favorably compared to All The President’s Men. We know the outcome of the true story, but the director (also co-writer with Josh Singer) and the perfect ensemble cast keep us leaning forward to follow the labyrinthine investigation into the dark recesses of an institution purportedly standing for truth, justice—and love.
Set in 2001 just before and during 9-11, the film begins with Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his Spotlight investigative team–Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)— discussing the arrival of the Boston Globe’s new boss Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). During his stints at The New York Times and the Miami Herald he had cut staff by 15% (the Internet was decimating daily newspapers), so they are worried. Baron is Jewish in a Catholic-dominated city he has never lived in. They all have been or still are tied to the Church. Thus the film belongs, in part, to the outsider versus insider genre.
At their first staff meeting Baron asks about a story by columnist Eileen McNamara (Maureen Keiller) revealing that a priest was accused of molesting more than 100 boys. 25 of the victims’ families had brought a civil law suit against the cleric. Baron, noticing that there were no further follow-up stories, wonders why. The answer is that the documents had been placed under court-ordered seal, so he asks why the paper has not challenged this in court. The Spotlight staff reacts as if he does not see the obvious: it was unthinkable to sue the Church. Nonetheless, Robby and his team follow their boss’s orders, plunging them into a dark world of devious, unconscionable cover up of evil that horrifies them—so much that Sacha Pfeiffer, the only one of them still attending mass, stops going.
Their search takes them to law offices and basements containing archives of diocesan directories, some of which are in the Globe’s own storeroom. It seems that years earlier those trying to bring justice for the young victims had sent a box of documents revealing names of priests and abused, but no one had paid any attention to them. The journalists are surprised to learn that there are 13 priests who, when caught abusing boys, were transferred to other parishes, and when further accusations were made, were sent on to still other parishes. They’re shocked even more when a national expert, asking them how many priests there are in the Boston Diocese, predict that there ought to be 90 priest pedophiles there. Further gumshoe investigation expands the list to 87 priests.
The abuse of the children, which no doubt would have led the Church’s Founder to march angrily into the palatial Diocesan headquarters with his whip of cords poised to strike, was made possible by virtually the entire community’s complicity. As Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer for many of the victims, rephrases the familiar quotation in regard to the molested boys, “It takes a village to raise them. It takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.”
“The truth of it” we see in the reluctance of virtually everyone to cooperate with the investigative reporters. Even lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has worked on behalf of the victims, does not believe the Globe is serious about taking on the Church, so he plays hard to get, even insisting when at last he sits for an interview that the reporter make no recorded or written record of their conversation. Big time lawyers, when approached by Robby and his team members,, are appalled at the idea of “attacking” the Church. Thus Baron insists that they hold off publication of the growing story until they have incontrovertible proof that the cover up is systematic, rather than just the case of a few priests. Experts have told them that the crime is not just a local matter of Cardinal Law’s covering up the crimes of his priests, but national, and even international, reaching all the way up to the Vatican.
Most of the drama is low key—no false histrionics—until reporter Mike Rezendes’ heated argument with Robby over the need to publish the story right away. Mike has become emotionally involved after talking with some of the pathetic victims whose lives have been ruined by a priest they had trusted and respected. The team now has documents proving that Cardinal Law had known for years about the abusive priests whom he had been transferring from parish to parish following reports of their molesting a boy.
Mike: “We got Law. This is it.”
Robby, who agrees with Baron: “No, this is Law covering for one priest, there’s another ninety out there.”
Mike: “Yeah, and we’ll print that story when we get it, but we got to go with this now.”
Robby: “No, I’m not going to rush this story, Mike.”
Mike: “We don’t have a choice, Robby. If we don’t rush to print, somebody else is going to find these letters and butcher this story. Joe Quimby from the Herald was at the freaking courthouse!”
Mike: “What? Why are we hesitating? Baron told us to get Law. This is Law.
Robby: “Baron told us to get the system. We need the full scope. That’s the only thing that will put an end to this.”
Mike: “Then let’s take it up to Ben and let him decide.”
Robby: “We’ll take it to Ben when I say it’s time.”
Mike: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time! They knew and they let it happen! To KIDS! Okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this; Not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!
The story is tragic not only in regard to the treatment of the hundreds of abused boys, but even in regard to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). In the scene in which the polished churchman welcomes the newly arrived Baron in his posh office, we learn that in the past he has been a man of courage. The cardinal tells his visitor of his days as a young priest in Mississippi when he edited the diocesan newspaper and took up the cause of Civil Rights in its pages, much to the consternation of its racist readers. How sad, I thought, that this early champion of the downtrodden has come to value the careers of adult priests and the reputation of the church over the welfare of vulnerable children!
Tom McCarthy, director of one of my favorite Indy films The Station Agent, has gifted us with a powerful visual parable, one dealing with power and its corrupting influence. Through the centuries Protestant historians have charged that the fall of the Church began when Emperor Constantine legitimatised it. Within a few short decades the once persecuted, underground church became the powerful persecutor of pagans and those it deemed heretics, thus beginning the long chain of horrific events that included the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars following the Reformation, the Index, the enslavement of millions of Africans, and anti-Jewish pogroms culminating in the Holocaust. (Some of those writers conveniently overlooked similar Protestant abuses of power such as those committed in Puritan New England.) This film is one more testimony to the truth of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting nature of power.
From director to ensemble cast, this film is a mark of the excellence to which Hollywood can rise. A good companion film for this is Showtime’s 2005 film Our Fathers in which lawyer Mitchell Garabedian is played by Ted Danson, this film giving him far more credit than the Boston Globe for unmasking the predator priests and Cardinal Law. The new film does not white wash affairs by making this a story of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. When the staff celebrates their long-delayed victory, one of them owns up to the painful truth that he had ignored the material that was sent them years before. No one mentions it, but it is evident that he feels the pain that many boys could have been saved from molestation had not his respect for the church caused him to lay the material aside. Thus the one institution entrusted with the power to ferret out the truth had failed in its duty. Society’s self-appointed watchman had been asleep at the switch much like the ten foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable. We live in a world in which even the Good Guys become can become complicit with evil.
Before closing I want to say a little more about power and the church because as one of its members I think we too often betray our Founder in this regard. I recall that the oft quoted German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that this was the major difference between Christianity and other religions—that the gods of the latter were gods of power, whereas the God of Jesus Christ was one of “weakness and suffering,” hence Christ’s refusal to flee from or fight against those who came to arrest him in Gethsemane. On July 16, 1944 he wrote to his friend:
“God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us…This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process of we have described by which the world comes of age was an abandonment of a false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness…”*
I don’t think Cardinal Law and his fellow Bostonians who supported him have any understanding of this. Although his diocese undoubtedly did much good for the poor through such services as Catholic Charities, he and his church acted more like masters than servants. To protect the church and its reputation (and it, has turned out, its pocketbook), he was willing to sacrifice the welfare of hundreds of young boys in order to protect his priests. That he still believes in and lives in the world of power we see by the end line of the film that mars the “happy ending.” It tells us that far from being punished for his crime, Cardinal Law, when he resigned, fled to Rome. The Vatican not only allowed him to keep his seat in the College of Cardinals, but Pope Paul II made him the head of one of the most prestigious churches in Rome, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. This is punishment for ruining the lives of hundreds of children? It seems that the Vatican also continues to share the world’s, and not Christ’s, preoccupation with power and prestige. (But, to keep this from being a Protestant anti-Catholic diatribe, so do most television evangelists promising success, and even wealth, to their gullible followers.)
*Letters and Papers From Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 122 of the Fontana Books edition.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP.