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Quietly uncovering a Church scandal

Jim McDermott |  27 January 2016



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

When word first circulated a few years ago of a new film chronicling the 2001-2002 Boston Globe investigation into sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, I think most expected something along the lines of a scathing excoriation. More than 13 years after that story broke, as cases and cover-ups continue to be revealed (and perpetrated), you can hardly say such an approach wouldn't be warranted. Mainstream Hollywood is also not generally known for painting with a delicate brush.  

But Spotlight, released in the US last October (and in Australia this week) and now an Academy Award nominee, forgoes the predictable and the preachy in favour of a quiet, nuanced story hard to turn away from. The set-up: Globe Spotlight editor Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton) runs a small team of investigative reporters given complete independence; they follow the stories they think worthy of in-depth coverage, and print only when they're ready.

Until, that is, new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) asks them to look into the case of Father John Geoghan, who was being accused of sexually assaulting a child. None of the team — played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James — want to take the story: Boston's an Irish Catholic enclave; to cross then-Cardinal Bernard Law was to find yourself at odds with not only him but most of the city's important people.

Plus, the team wonders whether there's really a story there, not knowing that they would discover not only that Geoghan alone had abused more than 80 children, but that he was just the tip of the iceberg.

It's within the expanse between what the Globe reporters know and what we have learned since that Spotlight finds so much drama. As in the classic '70s film All the President's Men, we take the journey into truth with them, watching as each new piece of knowledge quietly deepens their shock and, eventually, horror. Whether they began the story as Catholics or not, by its end each of them is changed, as is the world in which they live.

Today we continue to experience the ripples of those revelations. And yet watching Spotlight what most strikes me is how very early days it all still is. Yes, in many dioceses there are stronger child protection standards now in place; certainly the Vatican now demands much more.

But many of those who covered up abuse also remain in office, while victims continue too often to be discussed behind closed doors as cash grubs or liars. And — in my home country of the United States, at least — many of the ongoing programs priests now must go through seem designed far more to alleviate insurance concerns than anything else.

Put simply, the bigger questions as to what our recent past has to teach about who we are and who we should be as Church remain largely unconsidered, even under this most reform-minded of popes.

Not long ago a priest visiting from abroad told me that the story of Spotlight doesn't really apply to his country. 'We don't have that problem here.' It's a comment you get somewhat regularly from some parts of the world. Would that it could only be true. Without a much greater willingness on the part of the institutional Church to let itself be broken and changed by what we have learned since January of 2002, it's more likely a sign of disasters still to come.


Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit priest and screenwriter.

Read Jesuit film critic Fr Richard Leonard's review of Spotlight here.



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Submitted comments

"But many of those who covered up abuse also remain in office, while victims continue too often to be discussed behind closed doors as cash grubs or liars". How chilling ... how amoral ... no moral compass here.

mary tehan 28 January 2016

Has the Vatican amended the portion of the Code of Canon Law that demands priests not make the police aware of child sexual abuse under pain of defrocking? I imagine this kind of "blackmail" would be a huge disincentive to the majority of the clergy, however high their own personal standards.

Helen Enright 28 January 2016

And a spotlight on this [no priests]! the United States Department of Education released a stunning report by Hofstra University’s Charol Shakeshaft. Harmonizing a number of large-sample studies of our nation’s public schools, Shakeshaft concluded that “more than “4.5 million students” are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.” Shakeshaft also added, “[A 2003 report] that nearly 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career presents the most accurate data available at this time.”10 Amazingly, Shakeshaft also added that she believes that studies of the issue actually “under-estimate” the extent of this sickening problem. Pierre Jr, David F. (2015-07-30). Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of The Boston Globe’s Reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church (Kindle Locations 123-130). . Kindle Edition.

Father John George 04 February 2016

Yes child sexual abuse if rife everywhere, we all know that - but again, you are deflecting. Why?

Ed 17 February 2016

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