“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
When Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy in February 2013, most of the western media politely accepted that the frail Bavarian preacher had become physically unable to look after his shrinking and increasingly unobservant flock. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that the ongoing criminal investigations of the The One True Church didn’t impact his decision. During Benedict’s papacy and that of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church became known as a premier champion and protector of men who fuck children. Benedict’s decision to remain in the Vatican City after his resignation was at least in part informed by concerns about his legal immunity as a Church leader in regards to national investigations of the clergy sexual abuse.
Those investigations, and the international outrage they represented, can be largely traced back to a series of articles published in 2002 by The Boston Globe. The first article in the series went to press on January 6, 2002. It was headlined, “Church allowed abuse by priests for years,” and featured an elderly clerical pedophile the Church had inconspicuously resettled in a working-class Boston neighborhood. The immediate political and social upheaval culminated with the disgrace and resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, former Archbishop of Boston and a key architect of the conspiracy to protect abusive priests.
The Globe‘s articles marked the first time professional, mainstream journalists investigated how senior Catholic leadership facilitated that abuse. Spotlight recounts how those stories were penned. The film is set in Boston, Massachusetts and spans six months between July 2001 – January 2002. The turn of the century marked the rise of the internet and what many presumed would be the death of print journalism. At the time, The Globe was a well-established but stagnant publication struggling for both relevance and revenue. Those qualities, of course, also accurately describe the status of the modern Roman Catholic Church at the same time. The two institutions weirdly compliment each other in the film. Think “dueling complacencies.”
Spotlight is masterful if only for the fact that it somehow leverages stagnation and complacency as compelling, even intriguing cinematic themes. While the film does indulge us some legal trickery and journalistic espionage, far more stunning is that much of the evidence of the Church’s coverup had been easily accessible for years. The legal community, law enforcement, the judiciary, even the Globe itself, had all allowed the Church’s privileged position in Boston society to dissuade them from pursuing evidence of severe, overt criminal wrongdoing. As the journalists in Spotlight uncover the Church’s crimes, they each also process their personal culpability, either through outright neglect of obvious evidence, or just by their residual emotional attachment to the Church as “lapsed Catholics.” It’s in this context that we’re offered a dark and unsettling riff on Hillary Clinton’s favorite African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The acting is superb, as is the editing and cinematography. While it feels condescending to describe a movie set in 2001 as a “period piece,” it’s nevertheless impressive that the producers managed to acquire such an collection of MS-DOS era computers. The optics also support the film’s themes: Consistent with its title, the sets never seem fully illuminated. The shadows never entirely disappear.
Separate from the specific issue of clergy sexual abuse, Spotlight reminds us of the absolute necessity of an independent and unafraid press in free societies. Freedom of the press is not an abstract, 18th-century anachronism. It is indispensable and non-negotiable. Predatory institutions like the Church rise and fall with their ability to suppress information. Indeed, thousands more children were raped – and will suffer lifetimes of trauma – because the press did not earlier assert itself on this issue. It’s a precedent that deserves our prayerful consideration today as we entertain demands, from sacred and profane corners alike, to make cherished beliefs immune from scrutiny. Freedom of speech is our right, but speaking freely is our obligation.