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Spotlight: an Excellent Film that Needs to be Viewed and Reflected upon
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-03-12 10:57:32
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The “best movie” award for 2016 went to “Spotlight”: the story of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who broke the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse story in January 2002.

I still remember well the spirited controversy that ensued in the pages of Ovi magazine when the story first came out in print. To be sure the story needed to be told then as needed to be told now, but responsibly. Alas, that was not always been the case. At times it was used for Church-bashing purposes as I pointed out at the time. This time around, even though the story could have easily have been so used, it was told in a responsible and competent mode via the film media.


The Staff from the Boston Globe in Spotlight

For starter, the movie is not conceived as pure sensationalistic, exploitative entertainment. Its subject matter hardly lends itself to that. It is rather a discrete but stark presentation of the events that took place. It is not a documentary either but what could be labeled an “information film.” Even the acting by excellent actors is subsumed to the telling of the story; and that makes the story all that more powerful.

The tone is somber and dreary, as the story indeed demands. The monolithic power of the Catholic Church (at least till 2002) over the civic affairs of Boston comes across as stunning and revealing. That power extended even into the newspaper The Boston Globe where the tendency was to believe that the dismissal of claims against the Church by the Church itself somehow settled the matter. We are brought back to the tragic confusion of temporal and spiritual power as pointed out by Dante way back in the 14 century. It took an outside editor from New York to point out this sober truth to the editors of the Globe.


The question arises: What is the message of the movie? The story is by now well known, so there are few if any surprises or crisis points awaiting the viewer. The timeline unfolds slowly. What is unique here is that the evidence is hiding in plain sight: B.C. High (a Jesuit educational institution for boys) is directly across the street from the newspaper’s headquarters. The school maintained an infamous priest-coach molester on its staff.

Who is to blame? The film seems to blame the Globe itself for not reporting the story years earlier when the damning information by victims had begun to surface. This negligence may or may not have any merit, but what is important at this point in time, is that it is more than made up by a compilation of careful gathering of evidence that could not easily become another isolated story to be eventually buried and forgotten.  

What is admirable about the movie is that the faces and voices of the victims are given three-dimensional reality and major focus. We see an initial incredulity on the part of the regular Catholic faithful due to the fact that the Globe had in the past, since its beginnings in 1872, exhibited anti-Catholic tendencies siding with the Boston WASP establishment. Eventually, as the film shows, the veracity of the charges was inescapable. The culmination of the story is the day the first big story on the scandal is released by the Globe. Six hundred articles followed within a year but there is no epilogue or aftermath, to speak of, in the Globe or in the film. So, in the end, what are we left with? Perhaps the answer to such a crucial question is that we are left with a wound of moral indignation and deep sadness.

In reality, the all too brief explanations offered for the egregious abuse by less than 2% of the clergy (a statistic often ignored conforming to that in other religious congregations and institutions) leave something to be desired. Celibacy is offered as one such; because it allegedly creates a culture of secrecy. There is something logically untenable here. It says that the very attempt to practice celibacy means that one automatically becomes a depraved predatory pedophile. This ignores that most sex abusers of children are married men within the confines of the family. It is hard to logically grasp this alleged connection between celibacy and secrecy.


Another unconvincing reason is that some of the priests are psycho-sexually stunted at the level of a 12-year-old. Even if we grant this, it does not make one an automatic repeat child molester. The one priest molester we see being interviewed begins to say that he was raped as a child, but the thought is not continued or further explored. That would have been quite interesting, given that the research shows that some molesting priests were they themselves molested by priests as children. How does the cycle continue and grow? We get no answers to such a question.

Another possible flaw of the film may be that there is not enough rage portrayed. Perhaps more emotion, and less cool investigative rationalism should have been exhibited. If the director expects the audience to feel the moral outrage issuing from the story, he is not offering much help in that regard. Perhaps he expects the audience to muster it for themselves.

Be that as it may, the final philosophical-ethical question seems to be this: what exactly is the morality of the movie? Of course the movie is about “the good, the bad and the ugly,” to put it in more Clint Eastwoodian terms, but where pray is the hope, the healing for the victims, the reform for the Church? There is precious little of that in the film. Perhaps it was not part of its purpose. But is there any sort of silver lining here? What exactly are the root causes of such monstrous crime against children? We seem to be left with the mere contemplation of raw evil. Perhaps the ultimate message is that sexual abuse of any kind, even when it is heterosexual and consensual, destroys hope, and a Hollywood happy ending would have seemed inauthentic. Hard to tell.

I’d like to suggest, however, that there may be hope after all, even granting that sexual abuse takes a heavy psychological toll and some of the victims tragically end up committing suicide. Emotional healing remains a possibility; if that is not the case, then we are all zombies with no free will and no possibility of redemption. In this film, try as one may, Job’s question to God is missing. Why would a good God allow this? And how could alleged “men of God,” of all people, do this? Is faith in God still possible after such horrendous discovery? All we hear in the movie is “devout Catholics” and church goers, and non-church goers. God is hardly mentioned and is pretty much absent from the whole movie. But perhaps that is correct, given that the movie is more about bad men and less about a good providential God. For the Church remains human, even if guided by the Holy Spirit, and those in authority, even the highest authority, remain free to obey or defy the moral law. Dante, for one, places three popes in hell. Regardless of the personal holiness, or lack thereof, of these reprobate priest, the sacraments and all we need spiritually still operate through them. Which of course does not mean that they should be immune from justice, both human and divine.

The above having been said, I wish to encourage people to go and see this film. The film is even-handed in its story telling, not a mere excuse for a biased opinion or narrative. The horror is all in the information one receives as it is slowly unearthed. It is an important film to begin to understand how corruption, of any kind, works, and to honor the victims of such corruption. If we do that, perhaps all the suffering of so many children may not have been in vain and new needed laws, to protect the young and the vulnerable, may be created. That may be called an unsatisfying silver lining, but perhaps it is all we can hope for at this point in human history.

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