Saturday, March 12, 2016


Spotlight is the dramatization of the investigation by group of Boston Globe reporters in 2001 that led to the expose of the cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston of the abuse of minors.

The movie sets the stage by opening with a scene in a Boston police station in 1976. The bishop is overheard telling a young mother with her children, that the priest will be taken out of the parish. Two police officers in station talk about what is happening and it is mentioned that the priest, Father Geoghan will never face an arraignment. When the lawyer arrives, he tells them to keep the press away from the station.

Fast forward to July 2001. Marty Baron has just become editor of the Boston Globe and decides he wants to shift the paper towards investigative journalism that focuses on local stories. Spotlight is a four person investigative reporter team which reports to Ben Bradlee Jr. When Marty arrives, Spotlight is in the process of trolling for its next story.

Around this time Globe columnist Eileen McNamara had just published another column on the Father John J. Geoghan case which she has been following since it broke in 1996. Geoghan was eventually defrocked and  by 2001 he was facing criminal charges as well as 84 civil suits. McNamara questioned how the Catholic Church, specifically Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston could repeatedly place Geoghan in new parishes after he reportedly went on "sick leave" and not have known he was re-offending. While Baron wants the investigative team to pursue this and to apply to the sealed documents released the rest of the Spotlight team remains skeptical until they begin researching.

Walter Robinson, the lead editor on the team advises that they start with the Father Porter case in which dozens of kids were molested in Fall River ten years earlier. Eric Macleish represented the victims in this case and when they talk to him he warns them to be discreet so that Cardinal Law does not learn of the investigation. Walter and Sacha Pfieffer also a Spotlight reporter meet with Macleish and he informs them that the cases are difficult to represent because the statue of limitations on abuse is three years and is complicated by the fact that many victims do not come forward until they are adults. Most of the victims were kids from tough neighbourhoods. Macleish tells Walter and Sacha that he believes Mitch Garabedian who is representing the victims in the Geoghan case has nothing on Cardinal Law and that he is bluffing in order to obtain a bigger settlement.

Mike Rezendes reaches out to Mitch Garabedian, the eccentric lawyer for the Geoghan victims, in the hopes of speaking with some of the victims. Garabedian is reluctant at first but later agrees.

After having clips and other material pulled from the Globe's archives, they come across Phil Saviano who is a victims advocate who has formed a group called SNAP - Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Sacha is requested to track him down. The Globe archives also reveal that another priest,  Liam Barrett molested kids in Philadelphia, was transferred to Boston, reoffended and was moved again. His case was settled in 1977. This leads Robinson and the team to believe that there might be a pattern involved in the abuse.

When the reporters talk to Saviano he tells them the abuse is not about being gay that it's about priests raping boys and girls. Saviano reveals that he was preyed upon by Father David Holley of Worcester and that most of the victims were poor kids who feel special when a priest shows them attention. Saviano shocks the team by telling them that he believes the extent of the abuse is widespread, encompassing all of America and the world right up to the Vatican. He knows of thirteen priests in Boston alone who are abusing children. Saviano also directs them to talk to Richard Sipe, an ex-priest who worked in the one of the church's treatment centers and who has studied priest-abusers.

Both Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfieffer interview victims who explain how they were targeted and what kind of abuse they suffered. They also learn that Eric Macleish represented a number of these victims and obtained settlements for them. After learning this Walter now wants to expand the investigation and goes to Ben for permission to do so.

Meanwhile Mike interviews Sipe extensively. He tells him the church wants people to believe these are isolated cases but they are part of a larger recognizable phenomena which he believes relates to the church's requirement of priestly celibacy. As the team goes deeper into the investigation they make startling discoveries about how the church is dealing with the priest-abusers, the families of the victims and run headlong into the enormous influence the Catholic church has in Boston. Undeterred, Spotlight eventually publishes its expose in early 2002. It is a bombshell that rocks Boston.


Spotlight accurately portrays the Boston Globe investigation into the child abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston. The expose when finally published eventually led to the resignation of Cardinal Law and a Pulitzer Prize for the group of reporters. More than that it caused thousands of people to come forward acknowledging their abuse. The revelations were far-reaching and dramatic eventually revealing the abuse of children by Catholic clergy to be a worldwide phenomena. In Boston alone, 249 priests were discovered to have been abusing children over a period of several decades. It also revealed that the Catholic church attempted to cover up the abuse scandal by paying out small settlements and making victims sign confidentiality agreements, promising to remove the abusers from parish work. In fact, as we now know and as many Catholics in America and Canada can attest to, priest-abusers were merely moved from one parish to another, sometimes after "treatment" only to re-offend and abuse more victims.

The film leaves off listing the number of priests found to have abused children in Boston and lists the areas in the world which were directly impacted significantly by the abuse of children by Catholic priest. Seeing two screens listing all the cities is disheartening to be sure. In fact there are places in Canada not even listed in the movie in which significant problems existed.

Unfortunately, Spotlight neglects to mention at the end of the film,  the significant efforts undertaken by the Catholic church following 2002 to deal with the problem of priest abusers. This leaves viewers to believe that this situation continues to exist in the Catholic church. It does not.  The Catholic Church now has in place some of the strictest requirements for the reporting of abuse and for action against priests who abuse children. The same cannot be said of other institutions such as the public school system in the United States where abuse by teachers continues to be a significant and unacknowledged problem. The church also has endeavored to better screen applicants to the priesthood, requiring intensive psychological testing.

Spotlight while highlighting the obvious poor handling of the abuse by the Catholic church also hints at, but never fully explores, the responsibility of the Boston Globe and the Boston catholic community at large in not acting. Eric Macleish, when confronted by Walter Robinson, mentions twice in the movie that he sent the Globe significant information concerning twenty cases many years ago, but it was buried.  Likewise Phil Saviano also tells Walter Robinson that he sent all of his information to the Globe five years earlier but apparently they weren't interested. In Spotlight, Robinson and Marty Baron are quick to excuse themselves for not acting (Robinson says he has no recollection of receiving Macleish's information). The same consideration is not given to the Catholic church in how it acted.In some ways, Spotlight depicts a simplistic view of how the Catholic church responded, ignoring the fact that initially the church relied on the current professional psychological opinion that these abusers could be rehabilitated. Of course when this obviously was not successful, they never changed how the priests were dealt with, allowing more children to be harmed.

Given the scope of the abuse, both Robinson and his team are astounded that so many people who were abused and their families remained silent. Given that there were 249 priests involved in the scandal in Boston alone, it would seem that someone in the community might have acted. However, the stigma of abuse, the fact that it involved priests who were supposed to be good men led many victims to desire confidentiality. Jeffrey Mirus in his article, Three Great Lessons of the Abuse Scandal provides some of the background as to how the Church has functioned and how certain weaknesses led to the scandal.

Spotlight, which was directed by Tom McCarthy, endeavours to be as realistic as possible; the choice of actors who look like the real life persons involved is quite remarkable. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams all turn in exception performances. A fan favourite, Stanley Tucci portrays the eccentric Michael Garabedian.

While the focus is on the investigative team, the victims are not ignored either and their portrayal is also realistic and deeply moving. We get a sense of how deeply harmed these people were by what happened to them and by the fact that this harm was never acknowledged by both the Catholic church and their community.

The following resources may be of use for further exploration of this issue:

The Story Behind the Spotlight Movie

The first part of the original series, Church allowed abuse by priest for years published by the Spotlight team can be read online. The remaining articles are listed at the end of this article and are well worth reading.

Reporting An Explosive Truth: the Boston Globe and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic church - this website is a case study for investigative journalism for Columbia University's Journalism School.

Father Geoghan case.

No comments: