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The time to look away from abuse crisis has gone

Richard Leonard |  27 January 2016

Spotlight (M). Director: Tom McCarthy. Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachael McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery. 129 minutes

This is one of the angriest films you will ever see.

In the Bible we hear about righteous anger, where God or humanity realises something is so wrong and sinful that 'holy anger' is the first and right response. At its best in the scriptures this anger leads to justice, making things right.

Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo in SpotlightSpotlight is an occasion for holy, righteous anger and every adult Catholic should see it. Not because it is easy watching, but because it is necessary watching. The time to look away has gone.

The first meaning of this film's title refers to the team of award-winning investigative journalists at The Boston Globe. In the late 1990s they become aware of a number of Catholic priests who have been accused of child sexual abuse.

In the early days of their investigation they unearth evidence that the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up the activities of these paedophile priests, and silence victims through payoffs, legal threats and personal intimidation.

The team starts out believing they are looking at isolated, criminal individuals: the 'rotten apple' theory. Within a year and with the help of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the only lawyer in Boston prepared to represent victims against the Church, they discover there have been credible or accepted allegations against 90 priests, 6 per cent of the total number of clergy in the Archdiocese. Some of these were moved to various other dioceses in the USA where they raped and abused other children.

In 2011 Boston's Cardinal O'Malley made public the full list of offending clergy: 159.

The USA remains the most publicly religious western nation on earth. In 2014 70 per cent of the whole population said they were Christian. 51 per cent are Protestant while 24 per cent are Catholic. The USA remains the largest practising Christian developed nation in the world, where around 28-32 per cent go to church once a month or more.

This is background to the power of religion in the USA. Even after the despicable scandals of recent years, it can be hard for people who have never lived in Boston or Chicago or New York to appreciate the social and political power churches continue to wield, much of it used in support of very good outcomes in education, social services and healthcare. This film is about the corruption of this power.

The Spotlight team increasingly become aware that the stakes are escalating, that they 'are going after the system' with connections to nearly every other powerful institution in the city.

By 2001 rumours of the newspaper's investigation emerge. Some powerful men want to close the investigation down. The journalists are personally targeted and harassed.

The paper and its reporters press on. '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!'

From June to December 2002 The Boston Globe published 13 lengthy reports about the crimes and their cover up, culminating in the resignation of Cardinal Law as Archbishop of Boston on 14 December 2002. The paper, and its first-ever Jewish editor, came under sustained attack for being 'anti-Catholic'. For their fearless and outstanding work, the Spotlight team won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism for Public Service in 2003.

The second more obvious meaning of spotlight is the pool of light wherein the watcher's attention is singularly focused upon one place on the stage. In the history of the theatre, depending on what happens in that prolonged, harsh pool of exposure, careers and reputations have been made or destroyed. There is nowhere to hide.

This film not only casts its forensic gaze against the Catholic Church and other civic institutions in regard to child sexual abuse, but also on itself. Since 1976 victims, their families and lawyers had been telling The Boston Globe about the crimes, the criminals and the scale of the cover up. The editorial staff could not or would not see what was in front of them.

That last phrase is literally true. Soberingly for this Jesuit reviewer, one of the cases this film explores is that of a Jesuit priest who teaches at our Order's Boston College High School. In the course of the newspaper's research, accusations of sexual abuse emerge from several victims against this priest. The head of the Spotlight team, Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton), is an old boy of BC High. He knows the priest, and personally investigates the claims. He then confronts the school administrators.

BC High is directly across the road from The Boston Globe. For decades, one side of The Boston Globe's story was on the other side of the street. There is plenty of blame to go around in this scandal.

Spotlight's screenplay is so richly dramatic that this film does not need gimmicks to communicate its power. The acting is universally compelling, as is the film's production, design and editing. It has already won awards from the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics, and the Catholic SIGNIS jury prize at the Venice Film Festival. It was nominated for three Golden Globes and is an Oscar contender in several categories.

Importantly the present Catholic Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley said 'The Spotlight film depicts a very painful time in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and particularly here in the Archdiocese of Boston ...

'The media's investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the Church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself — to deal with what was shameful and hidden — and to make the commitment to put the protection of children first, ahead of all other interests. We have asked for and continue to ask for forgiveness from all those harmed by the crimes of the abuse of minors ... '

Vatican Radio said that in this film the Globe reporters 'made themselves examples of their most pure vocation, that of finding the facts, verifying sources, and making themselves — for the good of the community and of a city — paladins of the need for justice'.

All this said, there are a few troubling aspects to this film, none of which take away from its singular power. On seeing it, one could be forgiven for thinking The Boston Globe was the first media outlet to investigate these heinous crimes and their cover up. Led by Canada, and then the UK, Ireland and Australia in the first half of the 1990s, serious allegations and investigations of the Catholic Church soon led to the beginnings of systematic responses and later judicial reviews.

Secondly, while lawyers come in for a general pasting in this film, the police are conspicuous by their almost total absence from the narrative. There has to be a story there and maybe it is the subject of a future film.

Finally while Spotlight's profile makes it the most prominent film so far, it is not the first or only film, television drama or documentary on this shameful subject. Heaven Help Us (1985), The Boys of St Vincent (1992), Song for a Raggy Boy (2003), Twist of Faith (2004), Mal Education/Bad Education (2004), Our Fathers (2005), Deliver Us From Evil (2006), Hand of God (2006), Sex Crimes of the Vatican (2006), X Files: I Want to Believe (2008), Doubt (2008), Oranges and Sunshine (2011), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2013), and Calvary (2014) all explore in some measure Catholicism's criminal dysfunctionality in regard to child sex abuse by clergy and its cover up.

It may have been possible for Catholics to once argue that this shameful and criminal chapter is 'a media beat-up from an anti-Catholic press' or 'it's just a few sick individuals', but The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse puts paid to those claims.

Even though we now know that there is pandemic of sexual abuse of minors — in family homes, in every religious group as well as all welfare and government institutions that have had long-lasting dealings with children — that affords us no comfort or excuse. For as Francis Sullivan, the head of the Church's Truth Justice and Healing Council said on December 17 2015:

At the end of another confronting and shameful public hearing for the Catholic Church the heavy sense of failure pervades our community.

It is becoming an all-too-predictable scenario, in that in every case study ineptitude, maladministration, cover ups and corrupt practices have been revealed. This miserable history cannot be denied, nor can it be rationalised away. The very fact that a faith-based institution would perpetuate such evil is incomprehensible. But it has — and now the time for reckoning has well and truly arrived.

As witness after witness fronts the Royal Commission the pretence falls away. At times the Commission's patience is clearly tested but at least the stark realities are made plain for all to see ... . Many have said that this Royal Commission is vitally important for the future of the Catholic Church in Australia. Quite clearly the Church has not been able to be as honest with itself as it has had to be in these hearings. Now the challenge is to explain why this tragic scandal occurred and how it can be prevented from ever happening again ...

Why go and see this very tough and demanding film? Because victims and their families deserve it.

May it make us as 'mad as hell' and not 'take this anymore' and enable that holy, righteous anger to demand complete openness, transparency and honesty from our own community. That might just be the start of bringing God's justice and healing to survivors.

Whether we like it or not, now we are all in the spotlight — and there is nowhere to hide.


Richard LeonardRichard Leonard SJ is Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Read American screenwriter and Jesuit Jim McDermott's review of Spotlight here.



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Submitted comments

I saw it on New Years Eve and it was one of the best films on abuses I have ever seen.

Marilyn 27 January 2016

The Ladder. Step 4:46?

AO 27 January 2016

Wish they would show in Poland so n denial are they there

Irena 28 January 2016

Anyone today, anyone, who argues that revelation of the most awful sins I can imagine is "anti-Catholic" is a fool. And as a Catholic who lived in Boston for 12 years it still enrages me that Cardinal Law is safe and well and protected from prison in Vatican City. For shame. The man who knew full well rapists worked for him, who moved them around to new parishes, will never go to trial.

Brian Doyle 28 January 2016

This film is not only moving in its integrity but challenging in its call to Church structures to ensure that we are bold in calling evil out of the shadows.

Doris Testa 28 January 2016

"There is nowhere to hide". 'Hiding' is still rampant ... just look for the bastions of invulnerability preventing any authentic accountability and consequence and 'hiding' is obvious.

mary tehan 28 January 2016

Brian Doyle raises an interesting question: why wasn't Cardinal Law prosecuted for his actions in relation to protecting paedophile priests from the law? That, in itself, would be worthy of a full journalistic investigation and film. That might also raise a number of other awkward questions. Paedophilia is not going to go away and it thrives in secrecy. This is a matter on which both civil society and the churches need to be eternally vigilant. The sad fact appears to be that the churches, in general, seem incapable of self-policing. The current Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has shown this. There are some heartening responses to this problem, as with the Anglican Archdiocese of Brisbane under Archbishop Phillip Aspinall. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington has also been exemplary in this regard. One lesson that needs to be learnt from this whole unholy mess is that there are and always were church leaders who knew and know how to deal with the matter in a proper and Christian way. They and the systems they set up need to be copied elsewhere.

Edward Fido 28 January 2016

When will this end! When will our 'leaders' remove their protective clericalism and start listening 'to the cries of the poor'- the victims, their families, the women and those of us left bearing the shame.

margaret 28 January 2016

Thanks Richard Leonard for such a balanced review of this film. Not only does it treat of the literary and dramatic features of this film, but also the impact it should have on the conscience of each of us and the concern and understanding we need to derive and show to the victims and families of these crimes and cover-ups.

John Edwards 28 January 2016

Well put. Until children are respected as entitled to the dignity of every human being their fragility will always be at risk of harm. It's the cover-up, the cosy familiarity, the culture of cronyism, the sanctification of group think that has enabled the 'noble corruption' of cover-ups by the powerful, that has wounded the institutional church.

moira 28 January 2016

This film demonstrates that the cover up of sexual abuse of children by clergy was systemic and not just an isolated case of negligent bishops. It was systemic because canon law required it, by the imposition of the pontifical secret, on all allegations of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The only exception to that was made in 2010 to allow reporting where the civil laws required it. If there are no such civil laws, the pontifical secret applies and bishops are forbidden to go to the police even if they want to. This has been confirmed by the Catholic Bishops Conferences in Italy and Poland which have declared that they will not be reporting these crimes to the police because their civil laws do not require reporting. Only two States in Australia have comprehensive reporting laws. All the breast beating by Cardinal O'Malley, Francis Sullivan, this reviewer, and the Vatican itself, does not take away from the current scandal - that canon law still orders a cover up wherever there are no reporting laws, and Pope Francis has refused two requests by the United Nations to change canon law by imposing mandatory reporting.

Kieran Tapsell 28 January 2016

This article is all good and well. Still waiting for Eureka Street to do an article on Rotherham. Remember, it's about the children and the cover up. No matter who the offenders were.

Gerald Lanigan 28 January 2016

Thank you, Richard, for furthering the healing, freeing power of truth by challenging all Catholics to embrace it no matter how painful and bewildering the search. majella tracey

majella tracey 29 January 2016

In my opinion, there will be no just closure of this mess until Canon Law is cleansed, or better still, rebuilt from scratch. Kieran Tapsell and Francis Sullivan hopefully can exert enough influence to help this to happen. It it certainly not going to happen if we wait for church leaders to get started.

John Casey 29 January 2016

Saw it tonight .. Very worthwhile in it's detail. Though it seems Australian Churches' responses are still only on the 'approach to right exposure'.

Adam B 29 January 2016

Brian Doyle's comment about 'Cardinal Law is safe and well... in Vatican City' makes me wonder whether he might soon be joined by another Cardinal, especially if there is any suggestion that our Commission's final report will recommend that action be taken against him.

Ginger Meggs 03 February 2016

Dear Richard, some clergy horrendously abused innocent laity. We need to continue to love the Church Jesus has left us with and work to build her up despite some abusive clergy. Clearly you are struggling too with the shame and horror of these ongoing revelations. I want to encourage you to take heart and find solace in God's love and mercy, if we are to remain salt of the earth. It seems to me none of the offending priests had a true vocation, but entered the priesthood/Church perhaps, in my humble view, to gain access and the trust of innocents. Never let it be said or believed that the Church condoned such behaviours. I cannot believe it ever would. However, serious mistakes have been made for a range of reasons that must never be made again. I think that Cardinal George Pell is currently carrying a huge load and doing an excellent job of 'saving' the Church in this time of crisis. This is my humble assessment of this wretched issue. Patricia

Patricia McGready 01 March 2016

While the perpetrators and the institutions made and allowed the crimes to occur, those in the churches who knew,the police who knew and those in society at large who knew and did nothing are all guilty.

Henk Brolsma 14 March 2016

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