Despite rumors to the contrary, Spotlight is not a great movie. I’m not going to go into the reasons, in my opinion, why the film isn’t as good as they say; I’ll leave that for professional film critics. But I think that Spotlight is an important movie, as mainstream Hollywood pictures go.
Spotlight tells the story of the Boston Globe’s exposé of child sexual abuse and its coverup in the Archdiocese of Boston.
It is a Hollywood movie, so it is no doubt full of embellishment. Nevertheless, if the skeleton upon which the movie hangs its premise is sound, then it is a damning condemnation of one of the world’s most established and powerful religious institutions. The reporters and the paper should be praised for their courage and investigative diligence.
As is often the case, when a boat springs a leak other leaks are sure to follow.
In the movie, the initial investigation of the Spotlight team centers on only one priest. After a meeting with the founder of a child abuse survivors’ support group, this number leaps to 13.
Real life psychotherapist, Richard Sipe who has long studied celibacy in the Church, features in the movie as a voice-over-the-phone that provides harrowing details about the high incidence of molestation. In his estimate, the number of priests who have engaged in illicit sexual acts with minors could be as high as 6% of all clergy members. That would mean 90 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.
After extensive investigation by the team, this number is borne out. In the post-script following the movie, the audience is informed that ultimately 249 priests in the Archdiocese were eventually indicted!
From one priest to 249. The numbers are not good.
Change in global organizations such as the Catholic Church happen at a glacial pace. The Spotlight report erupted not long after the turn of the millenium, around the events of 9/11. For some of us this doesn’t seem like so long ago, but in reality an entire generation has already come of age. All that time, the Catholic Church has been reeling from a loss of credibility.
The 2013 election of Pope Francis by the papal conclave, an egalitarian who champions for the voiceless, could be interpreted as a significant change in an organization famous for its secrecy.
Let’s hope to see more of such changes.
The Importance of Media
If there is one thing the movie Spotlight shows, it is how important fearless and unimpeded journalism is to a functional democracy.
Without the relative freedom of the press the United States enjoys, Nixon would not have been impeached, American engagement in Vietnam would not have ended so soon, and Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunts may have simply sailed unobstructued into the anti-harbor of Trump’s Islamaphobic tirades.
In 2001 there was still enough attention being paid to the mainstream press that the Spotlight story did serve as a vehicle for change.
However, as the Internet sluices more and more attention onto its fractured and infinite superhighway, generalized sources of information are losing traction. We increasingly receive different news from disparate sources, often curated to our political stance.
In other words:
“News” has become less a challenge of our beliefs as a bulwark for our preconceived notions.
Related to this is the question of just how much longform investigative journalism will continue to play a role in social change.
This is not only an academic question.
Recent events have shown that there is another entity, as powerful and entrenched in our American fabric as the Catholic Church, that requires the gimlet eye of a fearless and impartial press: The nation’s Law Enforcement system.
Here then is the big question: what tactics employed by the Spotlight team to expose systemic pedophilia in the Catholic Church can be used to determine systemic racism in our nation’s police forces, if any….
I will explore further this question in part II of this blog post.