All the Pope’s Men: a Review of “Spotlight”

Were you a person who knows nothing about the Catholicism and watched Spotlight, the new film about the priest sex-abuse crisis (officially opening tomorrow), you would probably stay as far away as possible from the Church. The premise of the film is this: for several decades, the Catholic Church (in the film the focus is on the Church in Boston, but the problem was worldwide) covered up cases of sexual wrongdoing by priests. The Church moved these priest abusers from one parish to another and in and out of various programs of reparative therapy, even as it arranged confidential financial settlements with the victims of abuse and suppressed all attempts to publish the truth about the extent of the abuse.

Sad to say, these basic facts are indisputable, even if there are nuances that, depending upon your point of view, may soften somewhat the sharp edges of the scandal.

The film’s timeline ends in 2002 with the publication by the Boston Globe of the first major report of the pattern of abuse and cover-up, written by the paper’s investigative team, called Spotlight. In a final scene, the writer of that initial front-page story is in the office of a victims’ attorney, who is about to go into a meeting with a new client, whose pre-teen children have just recently been molested by a priest – a scene clearly meant to suggest that the abuse goes on, which a decade ago it may still have been.

According to the film, it was the Globe’s new Jewish editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), who sets Spotlight to work on the story of Fr. John Geoghan (the abuse crisis’ Typhoid Mary), who by all accounts was a serial pedophile and who was tried and convicted and sent to prison where in 2003 he was murdered by another inmate. Director Tom McCarthy’s film is, in some ways, a fairly plodding redux of Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, a much better movie that was nonetheless an equally self-congratulatory, over-hyped paean to journalistic “courage.”

Now in both Big Stories (Watergate and sex-abuse), there certainly were forces arrayed against the truth, although, let’s be honest, no shots were fired at the reporters. Pakula especially created a sense of foreboding danger, so the viewer may wonder if “Woodstein” will even survive to see their journalistic triumph splashed across the pages of the Washington Post. McCarthy can do no more than create a feeling of. . .unpleasantness – that Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), head of the Spotlight team, may find it difficult to fill out a foursome of other Catholic golfers or that Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who writes the initial Globe exposé, may crack under the pressure of being frozen out of Catholic life in Boston, which pretty much is life in Boston.

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The pace of All the President’s Men had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it in 1976. Overblown as the whole shebang was, the film works as a thriller. Spotlight, however, gets bogged down in the process it chronicles, which is great if you like depositions. Mr. McCarthy uses many examples to make the same point, and Spotlight reporters huddled in the Globe’s archive flipping through copies of diocesan directories isn’t the same as Pakula’s soaring shot of Woodward and Bernstein in the Library of Congress.

Still the movie does make its points, and it’s hard to muster sympathy for Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, who like Richard President Nixon, was to an extent driven from office by tenacious reporters. Law, it seems to me, was the more deserving of ignominy. There’s a scene near film’s end in which reporter Rezendes stands in the back of a church as a children’s choir sings a carol at Christmas. The church is beautiful, the kids are beautiful, and the music is beautiful. I have the “gift of tears,” a small grace from God – either that or I’m just a sap – and I felt them well up watching that scene, both in joy because of its essential beauty, the beauty of the Catholic faith, but also in sadness because of the betrayal of priests and bishops who failed to respond to widespread criminality with anything like Christian compassion, settling instead for Catholic careerism.

The Globe (via Crux) reported the other day that the USCCB has issued guidelines to parishes about how to respond to the release of Spotlight. “Do not let past events discourage you,” reads the bishops’ memo. “This is an opportunity to raise the awareness of all that has been done to prevent child sexual abuse in the church.” Would that this is all that were needed.

Spotlight states that, as one character puts it, the crisis “has nothing to do with being gay.” Indeed, that character’s real-life counterpart recently said in an interview that about a third of abuse in Boston was heterosexual. But the movie’s depositions all deal with homosexual acts, and there are odd interludes in which the reporters talk on the phone with Richard Sipe, author of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis, who asserts that half of all Catholic clergy aren’t celibate, and we all know that nationwide the data indicate that more than 80 percent of all abuse cases (i.e. sexual contact with minors – defined as kids 17 and younger) involved homosexual activity. Who knows how many priests have failed to live up to their vows? Fifty percent seems awfully high. In any case, the crisis is mostly past, except perhaps in Rome.

So, Spotlight makes it’s points, although not very well, and it misses the depth of the scandal by being politically correct about its cause, but it’s worth seeing, if only for the performances of Keaton, Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery.

[Spotlight is rated R, I guess because of its subject. There is no nudity and not much bad language, although there are explicit descriptions of the acts involved in abuse. The film is currently in limited release but will appear in wider distribution on November 20.]

UPDATE: Spotlight received the Oscar as Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.