Journalistic justice: ‘Spotlight’ sends powerful message

From its opening scene, “Spotlight” pulls no punches. It is quick to establish the Catholic Church as “the Establishment” which bows to no one, at least not when the defense and protection of its priests are concerned. Viewers enter the time and place, Boston in the midst of its sexual abuse scandal, or, more accurately, before the scandal entered the spotlight, as a rookie cop anticipates the headlines and aftershock of a sexual-abuse case. A more experienced veteran puts the rookie at ease, but startles the audience by reassuring the young cop that there would be no headline. The Church would make a deal. Silence would be the aftermath.

The sexual abuse of children comes to light through the testimony of the abused. One character talks about the attention he received from the parish priest and how it initially made him feel special, having been ostracized from his peers because he was gay. Another victim, initially hesitant in sharing his name and telling his story to a Boston Globe reporter, becomes emboldened, telling the reporter that his name can be used and that for the reporter to “get those assholes,” the parish priests guilty of sexual abuse.

“Spotlight” is a compelling and fair movie. There is no superhero – even the reporters have their flaws, as the audience comes to find. The lead investigative reporter, the project leader of the special investigative reporting team at the Globe, called “Spotlight,” was guilty of failing to follow up on a lead some twenty years prior. The information was there, and people failed to react. Put more bluntly, and to quote the movie, “It takes a village to abuse a child.” The movie invites reflection on two important questions: one: To whom does our society gives power and authority? and two: why?

The movie portrays Boston as a small town – a boys club, really, where the courthouse is an extension of the school year playground, where deals can and are made and where power plays are the rule of the day. In a scene that welcomes the new Boston Globe chief to Beantown, Cardinal Law, the Boston Archbishop give the newspaper editor a gift of the Catholic Catechism, an edition, in fact, that the Cardinal helped translate. Thankfully, the outsider, coming from New York City, does not give in to the Cardinal’s request to “play nice” and work closely with the Catholic Church. There would be independence in how the two institutions operated, for the sake of journalistic integrity.

It is hard to watch “Spotlight” and not to cheer the reporters, the investigative journalism and the courage it must have taken to stand up when others were sworn to silence. “Spotlight” makes clear that it was the newspaper reporters during this time, not the local parish priests, who were the true servants of the City of Boston. Where the Church attempts to stifle those who challenge it, attempting to disbar a particularly courageous lawyer, investigative reporters dug through records and archives and hunted down potential leads all for a single cause: justice.

From its opening scene to its last, “Spotlight” is a powerful movie. Even for non-Catholics, the emotion is likely to be real, as well as the disgust with the doings of the Church. “Spotlight” is not just for Catholics. Its lesson and story are broader. In its final scene, the team leader of investigative journalism squad at the Globe answers a ringing phone with a single word invitation, “Spotlight.” As the screen goes black, it becomes clear who the character was speaking to, you. What do you have to say? What do you know? How can you do to help and protect others? Silence, “Spotlight” wants to say, is not an option.