‘Spotlight’ focuses on church sex scandal


“When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, and when a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?”

“Spotlight” – written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, and directed by McCarthy – is the most prominent nondocumentary film to tackle the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in the 2000s, first in the United States and later in Europe and other parts of the world. The film dramatizes the investigative reporting of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team as it spent months uncovering the systematic cover-ups of sexual abuse of minors by 70 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

“Spotlight” is relentless in its storytelling, holding nothing back as it takes on one of the most powerful religious institutions in the world. Even though only about 20 percent of Americans today identify as Catholic, the percentage is significantly higher in Boston, and was even higher – more than 50 percent – back in 2001, when the film is set.

The four-person Spotlight team – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – is known for its longterm, confidential investigative work. Spotlight picks its own stories, sometimes spending a couple months “kicking the wheels” on various leads before eventually focusing on a topic.

New Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is an outsider brought in to trim the fat and turn the paper around, and it is he who latches onto a collection of lawsuits in which a Catholic priest is accused of molesting numerous young boys at multiple archdiocesan parishes over the years. As a Jewish man from Florida, Baron is not impacted by the influence the Catholic Church holds in Boston, as evidenced by a tense sit-down with Cardinal Bernard Law soon after Baron’s arrival.

The Globe faces an uphill battle from the start, but that does not prevent the Spotlight team from fighting on anyway. From a lengthy court battle with the church to unseal sensitive documents, to hours of victim testimony, much of it heart wrenching, “Spotlight” leaves little room to breathe—and that is OK.

The victim testimony is one of the most compelling parts of “Spotlight.” A young, gay man details how a priest took advantage of him as a middle schooler—the first time in his life that someone had told him that it was OK to be gay. Another man talks about how he was paralyzed with fear when his parish priest fondled him in the car after taking him to get ice cream. A former Boston College High School hockey player admits to being abused by a priest who doubled as his coach.

Nothing about these stories is easy to hear. In fact, they serve to make the audience queasy and uncomfortable, especially those who are or were raised Catholic. But they are important stories nonetheless. Without the victims, there is no story. The abuse would have continued unabated, as it had for decades. This story needed to be told.

As the Spotlight team interviews countless witnesses, cathedrals loom in the background of many shots, marking the omnipresence of the Catholic Church in the Boston. This becomes increasingly unsettling as the audience learns more about what was being hidden within.

The attorney representing many of the victims, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), is quite a character. Always too busy to talk, he also acts as much-needed comic relief in a film where lighter moments are few and far between. Despite an early hesitance to involve the press in his cases, Garabedian eventually comes around and becomes an essential part of the investigation.

Garabedian, like Baron, is an outsider—an Armenian in Boston. The outsiders play a critical role in “Spotlight,” often helping to move the investigation along where insiders are afraid to push. In a lunch meeting with Rezendes, Garabedian addresses what he sees as a code of silence within the church community when it comes to sexual abuse. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” he says, between spoonfuls of soup.

In a pivotal scene, Rezendes delivers an impassioned diatribe. “They (the Catholic Church) knew, and they let it happen—to kids! It could’ve been you; it could’ve been me; it could’ve been any of us!” he shouts. You cannot get much more damning than that. The church takes the brunt of the blame for the mess untangled throughout the film, as it should, though there is also fault in the actions of the lawyers who helped mediate settlements outside of court, and even in the past decision of a Spotlight reporter to bury evidence of abuse and cover-ups.

“Spotlight” is a fascinating story of investigative journalism, the fight against the establishment and the drive to expose wrongdoings by one of the most powerful institutions in Boston—and the world. As one of the year’s best films, “Spotlight” is sure to receive Oscar consideration, especially for the performances of Ruffalo, Keaton and Tucci. It is a must-see not only for Catholics, but for those who strive to uncover the truth and hold accountable those who allow atrocities like sexual abuse to occur.

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