“Spotlight”: A Movie About Reporters: A Treatise On Evil
Just watched “Spotlight.” The reviews are right: it’s a taut journalistic thriller about how the Boston Globe’s legendary Spotlight investigative reporting team blew the lid off the system of pedophile priest protection in the city’s Catholic archdiocese. And through that, opened the door to exposure of a worldwide criminal conspiracy that is still being dismantled, and still being protected.
Yeah it’s a fine film: terrific acting, suspenseful even though we know
how it turns out. It has multiple Oscars written all over it, but wears its excellence without flash, much the way the real-life Spotlight team operated.
All this has been noted by other writers; I don’t have much to add to the kudos. Instead, what struck me, repeatedly, was how close this piece of history came to my own life. And how, at the core, it was so implicitly theological.
Start at the beginning: my pre-Vatican II Catholic upbringing: fish on Fridays, mass every Sunday, nuns that looked like nuns–and signing up at thirteen to become an altar boy.
I had the knack: the Latin stuck easily in my head, wearing the black robe and white chasuble was fun, and best of all I could get to ring the little bells, signaling that the really holy part was coming and everybody should kneel.
I began training with a Catholic chaplain; we were an Air Force family. And things went great for a few weeks; but then we were transferred, and that was that.
For a long time I slightly regretted that abrupt end; but more recently I learned to remember it with almost a shiver: was I beginning to be groomed? Did I have a near-miss with something unspeakable?
Or is even thinking about this a slander on the reputation of a priest whose name I can’t even remember? Because nothing bad happened to me. Not then, nor in the next several years, until I left the church because I realized I just didn’t believe in it.
Mine was a clean break: was that just dumb luck, a kind of blessing, or maybe a sign of privilege?
Next there’s the Globe Spotlight team. I was living in Boston when the team really got going, and was starting out as a reporter myself. I wrote for the city weeklies, which the Globe sometimes used as a farm team. One of those weeklies, The Phoenix, had even run an important early story about priest abusers — it’s mentioned in the film, acknowledged but then dismissed, because, they said, The Phoenix was too small, too bush-league to count.
(Ouch; though even then we knew they talked about us like that at the Globe, but we preferred not to think about it, and kept nipping at their heels.)
Early Spotlight investigations usually took aim at public corruption, of which Boston seemingly had an endless supply. I never met any of the team writers; they kept a low profile, but the group provided a model of getting the dirt, getting it straight, and getting the story out, that sticks with me to this day.
Looking back, there’s one more big jolt of reality for me in the film: it came as Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, as reporters Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, compile a list of more than seventy Boston priests with pedophile track records –using the real names that the Spotlight Team unearthed. The list scrolled down the screen, and one name jumped out: as a cub reporter, I had met and interviewed one of the priests on the list.
It was in the early Seventies, and Father Paul Shanley presented as a hip young cleric, with long hair, pursuing a “street ministry” to runaways, pushing the stodgy church envelope. I took him to be in the orbit of Catholic antiwar radicals like the Berrigan brothers, whom I had also interviewed.
Exposed thirty years later by Spotlight writer Sacha Pfeiffer, he was brought up on multiple charges of child rape, and in 2005 sentenced to 12-15 years in prison.
At the time I talked to him, Shanley was deep into his boy raping career. I never had a clue.
At one point, Michael Keaton as Spotlight Team leader “Robby” Robinson berates himself and his colleagues for not having dug up this story years earlier. But they look at each other sheepishly and admit, they hadn’t seen it, hadn’t wanted to see it. For a few seconds, I felt like I was sitting there with them.
And in one of the few “personal” scenes among the team members, Rachel McAdams/Sacha Pfeiffer and Mark Ruffalo/Mike Rezendes talk on her porch about the some of the destructive impact of their work on their own personal religious lives, such as they are. Turns out the story is not only about victims and perps, but also about themselves: facing how long it took even their vaunted team to take the charges, that had actually been presented to them years earlier, with any seriousness.
Their work is surely serving justice here, but they aren’t innocent. And something very meaningful to each, their religion, has been ground into dust by the process. As the Globe editor, Mark Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, reminds them all later:
“Sometimes we forget that we spend most of our time stumbling in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.”
Years later, far from Boston, I did some Spotlight-style reporting; in one project, like them I even spent four intense months, all on my own, in interviews and wading through stacks of documents and court filings to get the actual lowdown on a pair of church scams that cost evangelical Quakers and some others many millions of dollars. (The report that emerged from that work is here.) The perps, “good Christians” all, were indicted, convicted, and served serious time.
But along the way, I ran repeatedly into the same kinds of denial, coverups, and obstruction as did the Spotlight team, if on a more limited scale. And beyond the specifics, I also found myself confronting the kinds of soul-chilling doubt and disillusionment as they did. Evil can run deep, even in a small pool: there was “only” a handful of millions of dollars involved, stolen mainly from elderly pensioners. It blighted and probably shortened some of their lives. But there were no child rape survivors; no HIV cases, no suicides. I guess I had it easy.
Yet evil was evil. In 1998, I sat through a two-week federal trial in Wichita, Kansas. There I saw detailed evidence of how a harmless-looking church lady’s relentlessly swindled others like her out of their life savings, in the name of Jesus. And then, I heard the shamefaced testimony of many “church leaders,” of Quaker and other evangelical churches, who didn’t steal a dime, but who admitted to having disgraced themselves by enabling these quiet robberies of their flocks through negligence, denial, and willful blindness. They weren’t criminals, but they were infected by the evil, and helped spread it.
Afterwards, I saw several evangelical Quaker superintendents collude in a successful effort to sweep the whole multi-million dollar swindles under the rug, get them out of sight, down the memory hole. And in all this I had my chance to ponder a passage from the late M. Scott Peck, in his book, People of The Lie:
“Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.”
So Michael Keaton and his cinematic team made a spectacular film from an even more spectacular piece of real work. Yet while the Spotlight Team members did not philosophize much, they seemed to see that behind or within the system they were exposing, they were faced with more than simply lists of names of pedophile victimizers and traumatized victims. They were up against something that jailing a few dozen priests, and driving a cardinal into exile, would not be the end of the matter. They were also composing a treatise on evil, and seeing that its mystery is not to be escaped or eradicated, even in places that many regard as the most holy, and most sacred.
What’s their answer to that? What is yours?