Tom McCarthy’s latest film release is based on true events which took place in Boston back in 2002, when an investigative newspaper team uncovered a mass cover-up of pedophilia and molestation within the Catholic Church.
The Spotlight reporting group are a mixed quartet, varying in age, background, and journalistic style. They have one common agenda however and that is a hunger for the truth. With the arrival of a new editor-in-chief at The Boston Global, a shake-up is proposed. Outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) tasks the paper’s investigative Spotlight team with revisiting a priest abuse case which surfaced in the predominantly Catholic Boston area a few years back, only to be swept under the carpet with minimal media coverage. As they begin to scrutinize the case, the extent of the abuse they uncover reveals itself to be on a significantly larger scale that they could have ever dared fear.
The explanation for the heinous crimes being kept hidden for so long lies partly in Boston’s local culture. The abuse victims were kids from tough neighborhoods, reluctant to speak out for fear that it would lead to social rejection. Growing up, religion was installed in them from the beginning. As one victim simply puts it, “Knowledge is one thing. Faith is another.”
Rather than being prayed for, they were prayed upon by the figures they respected the most. These men abused their power as priests to groom the innocent and in turn, rob them of their faith. The Spotlight reporters push the kids (now adults) to recount their experiences in raw detail. The language is graphic, the words are honest. The team know that these raw confessions carry the impact that is needed to shock the Boston community into noticing the horrors occurring around them.
Those who were resolute enough to speak out against their assailants were quickly silenced with hush money. Whilst the team suspect this from the outset, they struggle to break down the guard of the victims slippery attorney McLeish, or to find any hard evidence to support their cover-up theory. The people involved concealed their deceitfulness by ensuring they did not leave paper trails. Lawyers dealt directly with the church and the court had case files sealed after friends of the church complained about them being so freely available.
Fearless Baron suggests The Globe sue the church, which they do with the help of attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). This forward thinking decision-making results in the court granting the case documents to be made freely available, and, in turn, gives the reporting team access to records which help to tie up loose ends. They now have solid proof that Cardinal Law was aware of the abuse and covered it up.
As the investigation continues, the Spotlight team become more and more attached to the story and its victims. The reality of just how close to home events are hits when one of the reporters discovers that a treatment center, where wayward priests were sent to repent, is situated on the same street as where he lives. Another is shocked to find the name of an old school friend printed on a list of abuse victims.
When the story finally goes to print after several painstaking months of research, the public response is overwhelming and the Spotlight team are inundated with phone calls from victims coming forward to tell their stories. A total of 249 priests were accused of molestation and abuse following the article’s release, and there are at least 1000 known surviving victims in the Boston area alone. The scale of the abuse was so shocking that it inevitably led to the Cardinal’s resignation, and paved the way for law to have a place in The Vatican.
At the end of the film, one of the reporters returns to Garabedian’s office a final time to thank him for his help and the time he invested in the case. Whilst there, he sees two young children in a side room waiting to be interviewed. It is a reminder to him as well as to the audience that the horror is not over and that sadly, the abuse continues.
Spotlight is gritty but slow. The cast is strong but we never get much of an insight into the characters they play. Perhaps, however, this is because McCarthy wanted the focus to be on the victims. The story centers around them.
SIDE NOTE: On the back of watching Spotlight, you may also wish to see the harrowing 2006 documentary ‘Deliver Us from Evil’, which looks at the horrific sexual abuse crimes committed by one particular pedophilia priest in California. To make you aware beforehand, this documentary is very upsetting and distressing to watch. It really forces you to witness the heartbreak, guilt, and hopelessness felt by the victims and their parents who willingly placed their children in the hands of the notorious Father Oliver O’Grady.
In turn, it is excellently produced to expose the layers of corruption within the Catholic church, which protects it’s own at the expense of the innocent. Like the backstory to Spotlight, the Church and priesthood were aware of the abuse and covered it up, allowing O’Grady to go on to abuse child into double figures.
‘Deliver Us from Evil’ is currently available on Netflix for anyone who wants to check it out.