By Vice President Suzanne Morse
Watching a movie about a story that had a huge influence on your life is a very different experience than watching any other film. My expectations for Spotlight, the film that chronicles the Boston Globe‘s investigation of the clergy sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, were high … but so was my concern that the writers and director get the story right. Previous films on the crisis lacked nuance, and at times authenticity, on this painful period that connects the history of Boston and the Catholic Church in the United States together. The film, which opens today, gets the story right.
It isn’t just that the movie gets the details – about Catholic Boston, about the victims and survivors and their stories, about the statistics of priests who abused and the numbers of survivors still struggling – correct. It also authentically captures the feelings of so many Catholics once the story broke, especially those who felt compelled to hold the institutional Church accountable for their failure to protect children. While highlighting their professional standards, the movie utilizes the three reporters and one editor – Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, and Walter Robinson – all of whom are at various stages of being lapsed or practicing Catholics to reflect the anger, confusion, horror, frustration, and guilt that so many felt about the revelations.
The Spotlight story takes place between July 2001 and January 6, 2002. At that time, as the movie notes, Boston was a majority Catholic city, with over 50 percent of the population identifying themselves as Catholic. Today, less than 40 percent do so.
Three scenes in particular stand out. Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo, has a moment where he angrily notes that as individuals raised within the Church, any of them could have been victims. It echoes an earlier statement by Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, who says that he “just got lucky” to not be exposed to an abusive priest who taught at Boston College High School because he played a different sport than the one in which the priest coached. Rezendes’s moment of realization and anger is reflective of similar moments that Catholics in Boston, and indeed across the country and around the world, had: how could this happen for so long, right under our noses? It’s a question many asked in 2002 and have continued to ask since. Later, Rezendes says to Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, that while he was a lapsed Catholic, he always thought that at some point, he’d go back. His experience echoes the feelings of many other former Catholics.
Near the end of the film, Walter Robinson acknowledges that almost ten years earlier, as editor of the Globe‘s Metro section, he missed the implications of a systemic cover up, despite being alerted to the fact that survivors had come forward with allegations against 20 different priests. Throughout the movie, there is talk of various ways the community protected the Church, under the guise of protecting the close-knit community of Boston. At that moment, Robinson is not only a stand-in for the Globe, but also for so many others.
The film accurately captures the care with which so many reporters approached the story once it broke. In my experience working with a number of reporters as communications manager for Voice of the Faithful, many of them struggled with the same issues that the Globe‘s reporters did in terms of their personal feelings, but were also determined to get the story right. For those who want to understand how a life-changing newspaper story is put together – and the importance of local journalism – Spotlight gives a very detailed and compelling account.
The story of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in Boston is complex and complicated. Unanswered questions still linger. Spotlight manages the remarkable feat of telling a critical part of it in a way that is human and dramatic without being exploitive. Although many will find the film challenging, it also has the potential to connect people in new ways. Those who want to understand this moment in Boston’s history should see it.
Vice President Suzanne Morse was Communications Manager for Voice of the Faithful, a reform organization that emerged out of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, from 2004 to 2005.