Spotlight tells the story of the investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe, which uncovered the extent of the Catholic Church child abuse and cover up in Boston. The team, instigated by the newly arrived editor from out-of-town Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), went for the Church itself rather than individual priests. This strategy took time, resources, but brought to light the systematic policy of the Church of keeping things quiet and simply moving priests around. The scale of the Catholic Church child abuse is now well known. From Ireland to the Philippines, from the US to Australia, the abuse went on and on.
The film is very good at highlighting different issues instead of crusading against religion. At the core is Boston as the ‘biggest small town in America’, as Rezendes, one of the Spotlight team, called it. In a place where everybody knows one another, powerful groups and institutions are protected by this intimacy. Baron was brave and went against his own interest to pursue the truth. He was an outsider. As described by one of the characters in the film, he was a Jew from New York and Miami, the wandering Jew who has no fixed place and no loyalty. He came from the city where ties are much looser and had no relationship with the Church. He’s no self-righteous angry journalist going against power, but a gentle and patient figure whose courage rests on constancy. Michael Keaton plays the journalist who had failed to take the matter seriously years before and comes to face up to his own complicity. He starts believing the victims.
What comes out strongly is how the victims were not believed, brushed aside, and even ridiculed. The power of the Church did not lie solely on being part of a network of other powers and institutions (press, police, government etc.). It had authority because people trusted it. Perhaps it’s natural to trust people in authority, people who are wealthy and famous. That authority, wealth, and fame are too often (mis)interpreted as an outcome of intelligence and hard work. Institutions need trust to function; yet it is often their bureaucratic make-up, internal power structure, and the lack of transparency that leads to disaster.
The Catholic Church is a highly political, centralized, and opaque institution. The child abuse uncovered is reminiscent of ‘organisational disasters’. It was not a matter of priests going astray, but of institutional structures that failed to prevent it and failed to take the right action. This was compounded by an organisational culture of secrecy, denial, and systematic protection of the perpetrators. Catholic priests do not seem to be more likely to be abusers than ministers in other religions and people in secular environments. What was particularly shocking the systematic cover up, moving priests to other parishes, and the refusal to cooperate with the law.
In the film, there is but a quick mention of some who try to ‘keep the faith’ whilst giving up on the institution. The Catholic Church needs a root and branch reform. However, the reason why Pope Francis got elected is more to do with the cleaning up of the murky finances than for a structural and cultural reform, which conservatives oppose. Pope Francis is no John XXIII, but without another aggiornamento the Church in the West will lose out to those churches and groups who are more inclusive and open.
The excellent film Calvary has a different angle on the topic.