Any major American newspaper would immediately fire a reporter who was caught using composite characters or inventing quotations for his stories. Hollywood naturally plays by different rules. A film “based on” a true story is considered acceptable; “recreated” dialogue is the norm. We expect print journalists to report on things as they are, while filmmakers are free to depict things as they might have been.

Spotlight, in which director Tom McCarthy recounts how the Boston Globe blew the lid off a simmering sex-abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese, is a paradoxical product. The film pays tribute to dogged investigative reporters, while itself blithely ignoring the standards to which those journalists adhered. Somehow it works. Treating a historical episode as a drama, Spotlight successfully conveys the essence of the story: the frustrations and triumphs of the reporters, the enduring agony of abuse victims, and the flavor of life in a city dominated by disaffected Irish Catholics.

None of the characters in Spotlight behaves quite like the real people I know. (The portrayal of Cardinal Bernard Law, by Len Cariou, is particularly weak, conveying neither the strength of personality nor the tragic flaws of that unhappy prelate.) Yet the actors are thoroughly convincing insofar as they show how their characters might have behaved in given circumstances. Strong performances (particularly by Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Michael Keaton as Walter Robinson) and lively pacing drive the story forward. And the plot line—the breaking of a major news story—sustains the excitement.

Spotlight is not a film for the faint-hearted. The sordid revelations about clerical abuse and episcopal negligence, made public during the “Long Lent” of 2002, come to life anew on the giant screen. Having lived through the debacle in Boston, and having chronicled it myself, I was sickened, saddened, and enraged by turns as I watched the events unfold once again. But just as I am grateful to the Globe for exposing a cancer within the Catholic Church, I am also thankful that Spotlight gave me another perspective on the scandal.

Roughly midway through the film, as reporters realize that they have Cardinal Law in their cross-hairs, Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) announces that the target should not be the man but the institution. As it is delivered, that statement seems to set a commendable goal, for both the Globe investigation and the movie. But there are layers of irony here.

First, the Globe had already been targeting the Catholic Church for years. On one controversial issue after another, the Globe’s editorial stands had been directly opposed to those of the Boston archdiocese. Moreover, in the battle for public opinion, the Globe had essentially won. It is ludicrous to suggest that the struggle played out in Spotlight was a David-vs.-Goliath affair, with the plucky Globe challenging the overweening political clout of the Catholic Church. By 2002 the public life of Boston was controlled not by Catholics but by ex-Catholics—including, not coincidentally, all the key members of the Globe’s investigative team.

Second, in spite of Baron’s pronouncement, the Globe did make Cardinal Law the primary target of the investigation, as does the movie. The Globe reporters missed some obvious leads, and left some major Catholic institutions untouched, in their haste to pin responsibility on Law. The movie ends when the first Globe exposé appears: at the very beginning of a long series of revelations that exposed a similar pattern of corruption throughout the American hierarchy.

Still, the focus on the institutional Church is appropriate, because the entire scandal can be traced back to the tendency of so many American bishops to think of the Church as a human institution rather than a divine mission: as a corporation sole rather than as the Body of Christ. It is noteworthy—and accurate to the reality of Boston in the early 21st century—that Spotlight offers barely a glimmer of the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. When defenders of the archdiocese speak about the good that is done by the Church, they are clearly referring to work done by charitable bureaucracies, not by pastors of souls.

Yet in the course of Spotlight there are glimpses of genuine faith, shining through the institutional façade. At the peak of the action, reporter Rezendes (Ruffalo) reads aloud from the heart-rending letters of Margaret Gallant, an honest Catholic mother betrayed by the people she had trusted most. When the Globe’s sensational report is in print, we see the pious grandmother of reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) reading the story with sadness in her eyes. Even the jaded reporters themselves realize that something precious has been lost. A distraught Rezendes tells Pfeiffer that although he deserted the faith of his childhood, he always wanted the option to return to the Church eventually, and now, totally disillusioned, he feels that he can no longer go back.

In January 2002 the Boston Globe won a decisive battle against its old institutional rival, the Boston archdiocese. Spotlight offers a fairly straightforward treatment of that conflict. But there are moments when, perhaps unintentionally, the film hints at points that have rarely been discussed in the politically-correct interpretation of the sex-abuse scandal. For instance, just before the triumphant finale, the head of the Globe’s investigative team, ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton), remarks that his own paper had failed the abuse victims, by ignoring clear evidence in the past. Once again it is the editor, Baron (Schreiber) who provides the convenient reasoning to justify the paper’s performance; things always look clear in retrospect, he says. (As he delivers this line, Baron almost seems to be acting as a father-confessor, absolving the sins of his reporters.) But Robinson’s self-criticism deserves more attention. It is true that the Globe had enough good leads to break the story of clerical abuse several years earlier. It is also true that even to this day, the Globe has not pursued the abundant evidence of sexual abuse in other institutions—notably in the public schools—with the same missionary zeal.

Similarly, in a quick bow to conventional wisdom, Spotlight assures viewers that sexual abuse has nothing to do with homosexuality. But all of the victims featured in the film are males, mostly adolescents, at the time they were molested. In one poignant scene, a victim of the notorious Paul Shanley tells a reporter that after growing up Catholic, and then discerning his own orientation as homosexual, he was horrified by his sexual experience with a priest. “It was so confusing!” he sobs.

The Globe never objected to Paul Shanley’s antics when he was a flamboyant “street priest” in the 1970s. Reporters did not take notice when Shanley mingled with teenagers at gay bars, or took guests to his fashionable apartment. On the contrary, that paper’s editorial policy encouraged young people toward sexual exploration, helping to create the conditions in which predators prosper.

Spotlight tells a sad and compelling story about how powerful prelates betrayed the faith of vulnerable young people. But in the course of telling that story, with a type of honesty appropriate to drama rather than journalism, the film might also help perceptive viewers to realize how many others—lawyers and psychologists, reporters and social workers, taxi drivers and police officers—were also guilty of looking the other way. Beyond that realization, a few moviegoers might see in Spotlight how the demise of faith sets the stage for the exploitation of the young.

Philip Lawler is editor of Catholic World News.

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Articles by Philip Lawler

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