It’s not that we aren’t aware of scandals and cover-ups around paedophilia and the Catholic church. And in Britain the Jimmy Savile scandal demonstrated that it isn’t only the Catholic church which is involved in the institutionalised covering-up of child abuse.
The film Spotlight isn’t simply telling the story of yet more poor, working class children being abused by Catholic priests in Boston over a period of 30 or 40 years, although that itself would justify the telling of it.
The film portrays the interweaving of church and key institutions in a city, from the schools and universities, through the police and justice departments, right up to the Boston Globe, the newspaper, which finally lifted the lid on the scale of abuse and cover-up in 2002.
Such cover-ups rely on the silence of the victims. In Boston these were usually boys from poor neighbourhoods, typically growing up in one-parent families.
One survivor asks, “How do you say ‘No’ to God?”, when explaining why he did what the priest wanted. His mother had been only too delighted the local priest was taking an interest in the welfare of her son.
But some adults knew and when it came to the attention of the authorities of church and state, there was always a way of arranging things. The offending priest would go on sick leave and be moved to another parish.
There wouldn’t be a public trial, just a settlement for the family facilitated by the public prosecutor and paid for by the church, with the full knowledge of the local cardinal. When the same thing occurred three or four years later, there would be another move to another parish with yet more young boys to abuse and yet more cover-ups. It was systemic.
As one expert predicted, approximately 6 percent of priests are paedophiles, and in Boston that meant 90 priests. The Spotlight team from the Boston Globe ultimately identified 87 priests and hundreds of victims.
The team is an example of fine investigative journalism. The journalists’ commitment, compassion and willingness to believe the victims combined with their determination to seek out the truth, drive their investigation.
The first Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, an outsider in a Catholic city, gave the Spotlight team the project, insisting they uncover the systemic nature of the abuse and cover-up. The sole lawyer prepared to pursue justice for the survivors, an Armenian, reckoned it took being an outsider to challenge the establishment.
In the end, the journalists succeeded in getting some of the “insiders” in the city hierarchy to bear out their story, enabling it to be told.
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the film after spending many hours of research retracing the team’s investigation. The actors, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and the rest, all got to know their real life counterparts, ensuring they fully understood what went into this real life expose.
Spotlight combines these multiple stories well. You feel the pain of the survivors, the frustrations and anxieties of the journalists, anger at the protection of the offending priests by those in high places and a sense that they are being brought to account.
But I also felt a profound wish for more journalists and editors with the will to truly investigate a story instead of spinning the official line.