Everybody Knew but Nobody Was Talkin’

Spotlight  A film by Tom McCarthy

Spotlight is an absolutely thrilling movie, one of those newspaper movies where reporters shout at each other, slam their fists on the desk, burst into the records office a few minutes before closing time, run down the sidewalk shouting for a taxi, stay up too late, write at incredible speeds, then stand there and shrug while the world hails their work.  I don’t know how something can be so suspenseful when we already know the outcome, but I guess that’s the skill of a great filmmaker.  Tom McCarthy assembled a marvelous cast that I would never have put together, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Shreiber, Stanley Tucci.  They all seem in character and the whole thing works.

The issue in question is the sexual abuse of children by priests in Boston in the seventies, eighties, nineties.  It doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t especially matter where; it’s been going on all over the place forever.  Even when I was a terribly unsophisticated kid I heard rumors of such things, and I wasn’t even Catholic (I wasn’t a Boy Scout either, but the Boy Scouts of America will be the next great scandal, if childhood rumors are any indication).  Back in the eighties I had a freelance journalist friend—a Catholic himself—who was trying to write the same story about churches in North Carolina; he had talked to all kinds of people, heard all kinds of stories, but when he went around a second time somebody had gotten to his sources.  It wasn’t the Mafia.  It was a different organization that has its headquarters in Italy.

Boston has always been a town where people keep to themselves, stick together with their group; they don’t rat on nobody and have an ugly close-mouthed sneer for outsiders.  Irish hoods perpetrate atrocities in their neighborhoods but nobody, famously, will go to the cops.  The same situation apparently existed in regard to the church (though I’m surprised some outraged father didn’t kill a priest at some point, or beat the hell out of one.  I might have done that, and I’m not all that Irish).  A couple of cops are talking about a case in the opening scene, the possibility that the press will get wind of it, and one remarks that it will be hard to hide the indictment.  “What indictment?” the other says, with a cynical shrug.  The priests and lawyers will hush it up.

Into that situation walks a new editor at the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jew, a bachelor, who has just moved to Boston from Miami (when we first meet him he’s reading The Curse of the Bambino to learn about the city, but admits he doesn’t much care for baseball.  A fateful admission in Boston).  People are worried that he’ll change things, he’ll make cuts, and he expresses concern that there’s a crew—known as Spotlight—that takes months researching stories before they write anything.  He suggests they might want to look into the issue of child abuse by priests, and they hear that suggestion with a glum shrug.  They know it’s important; it’s come up before, but they’ve never gotten anywhere.  They’ll spend months working and have nothing to show.

Except for one, an extremely high energy reporter named Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo).  He, like the others, was raised Catholic but has lapsed; he’s always thought he would make his way back at some point.  He’s not necessarily more hopeful; he’s just the kind of person who hears about an injustice and will walk through a brick wall to do something about it.  Ruffalo is the moral and energetic center of the film.  I haven’t seen him for a while, and he seems older, more filled out, as intense as ever (with that mesmerizing gaze); this was his best role since You Can Count on Me, the absolutely marvelous movie that introduced me to him.

Countering his energy is the reporter who seems the most empathetic on the staff, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams).  McAdams, of course, is naturally gorgeous, but this movie plays down her glamour; she’s the reporter who still attends Mass sometimes with her grandmother, feels for everyone involved, and is particularly adept at drawing out the victims.  She seems to be the one who is closest to Rezendes on the staff, gets together with him for a beer after one occasion when he really blows his stack.  His don’t-get-in-my-way energy combines with her quiet empathy, and the story begins to unfold.

What the Spotlight staff discovers is that they are dealing not with an occasional wayward priest, but with a syndrome that has developed through the years and been hidden by the institution.  A certain kind of man enters the priesthood, perhaps because he is conflicted about his sexuality, perhaps because he was abused himself.  He is stunted in his sexual development, never got any help with that (the church is not renowned for its open-minded attitude about sex), and after a while, though he may have hoped to repress his sexuality altogether, it rears its ugly head (so to speak.  I once talked to a novice in the Jesuit order, and he told me they got no training in sexuality whatsoever.  They were expected to be celibate, and were supposed to negotiate that impossible terrain by themselves).  The church hushed up the cases, paid the families a little money, put the priest on sick leave, then moved him to another parish.  A certain kind of wounded immature man was becoming a priest, and a huge powerful organization was protecting him.  The Spotlight team stumbled onto a survivor’s group, also a former priest who had spent his life studying this syndrome.  He estimated that 6% of priests were abusers.  That came, in Boston, to 90 men, far beyond what the Spotlight crew had ever imagined.

There are any number of heroes in this film, the reporters themselves, the editor who kick-started them, a lawyer who had originally colluded with the church in the cover-up but eventually admitted to the extent of the problem, a lonely Armenian lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who kept taking new cases.  The villains are the priests themselves, the church that protected them, and ultimately Boston’s sainted Cardinal Law, who knew what was going on but didn’t stop it (though as I’ve said before, one person is not the problem).  As a Catholic friend of mine said, they needed the priests and apparently didn’t care what was happening.

I don’t feel the priests were monsters.  The one abuser we see in the film is a sweet enough man, just extremely delusional.  What is monstrous is the way the institution ignored what they were doing, for its own reasons.  No one person does that.  A group does it (as someone says in the movie, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one).  We somehow don’t take the problems of children seriously, as if they’re not quite human beings.  And then when they get older, and act out of those impulses themselves, we think of them as monsters.   They were the children we once ignored.

An antidote to this movie—or an important corrective—is the John Patrick Shanley film Doubt, starring the great Philip Seymour Hoffman as an embattled priest and Meryl Streep as a different kind of monster.  It’s a complicated issue.  It isn’t just reporters who need to look at it.  We all do.

The process begins when we start talkin’.