Spotlight – A Review

I belatedly saw Spotlight, winner of many awards, including an Oscar for Best Picture. It is the story of how the Boston Globe’s special investigative team – Spotlight – exposed the epidemic of child abuse in Boston’s Catholic churches. To my surprise, I agreed with all the praise. Spotlight won the trifecta – good screenplay, good directing, and excellent acting. It is highly recommended.

In general, it did an excellent job of describing the problem, though sometimes key details were buried. For example, the movie repeated an estimate that 6% of the priests of Boston were abusers. But the final postscript indicated that the true figure was nearly three times as large. This is worlds apart from the standard Church line that only a few bad apples are involved. It also implies that the Church, along with many non-Church parties, did an incredible job of covering up the crimes.

Spotlight noted that abusive priests were generally predators who planned their crimes and carried them out repeatedly. They generally targeted children of devout families, who would be far less likely to report a crime. In addition, they often approached their victim at a time of special vulnerability – like after a death in the family. Furthermore, Spotlight correctly noted that much of this “abuse” was rape, not fondling or other relatively minor offenses.

Spotlight noted that SNAP, the victims’ organization, as well as other parties, told the Boston Globe about the problem years earlier. But somehow those reports got buried, and there was no follow-up. Here the movie was disingenuous. SNAP and others alerted major media of the problem earlier, and also documented the crimes. But neither the NY Times nor the Washington Post would touch it. No one wants to take on the Church. Only a new publisher was willing to authorize the Spotlight investigation. I suspect the previous publisher squelched any earlier investigation.

Spotlight emphasized the need to expose the systemic problem, not simply reporting on individual crimes. They emphasized the cover up by Cardinal Law, and showed how others, like lawyers for both the Church and the victims, helped conceal the problem. When Spotlight spoke of starting at the top, they meant Cardinal Law. They said nothing about Pope John Paul II, even though they knew the pope ordered all his bishops to suppress reports that might hurt the Church. Pope John Paul also made it clear that his punishment for blowing the whistle on priestly abuse was far greater than his punishment for child abuse. Cardinal Law was just following orders. After Law’s misconduct was exposed by the Boston Globe, Pope John Paul found him a cushy job in the Vatican.

Similarly, Spotlight said nothing about the failure of other priests to report their colleagues’ crimes. Much of the abuse was well known. Father Shanley, for example, openly promoted “man-boy love” to his colleagues. He even gave invited addresses on the subject around the country. Spotlight omitted this. Thousands of priests were involved in the cover up, something that neither Spotlight nor the media mentioned. The cover up is as serious as the crimes themselves, much as the cover up of the Watergate burglary was more serious than the burglary itself.

The best book I know on the problem is Vows of Silence: The abuse of power in the papacy of John Paul II by Jason Berry and Gerald Renner (2004, The Free Press). It covers a wide variety of crimes around the world and exposes the corruption of the now-sainted John Paul.

Finally, the casual viewer of Spotlight will get the impression that the exposure of Cardinal Law and his subsequent flight from the country solved the problem. The good guys won. In fact, the fine print in the postscript listed many other cities and countries which are still afflicted. While few media outlets make much of it, the problem is still with us. For example, on November 16, 2016, RNS reported that Minneapolis is trying to settle its abuse cases for $132 million (here). On November 15, the Associated Press reported similar negotiations in Baltimore and New Mexico (here). Despite his promises, Pope Francis has done very little about the problem.