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‘Spotlight’ Shows a Community at Its Worst, and Journalism at Its Best

The vivid new feature film starring Michael Keaton dramatizes the Boston Globe’s real-life uncovering of sex abuse by Catholic priests

Judith Miller
November 05, 2015
Photo: Open Road Films
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in 'Spotlight'Photo: Open Road Films
Photo: Open Road Films
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in 'Spotlight'Photo: Open Road Films

Spotlight is powerful docudrama about how the Boston Globe’s investigative team, known as “spotlight,” exposed priests in the Boston Catholic diocese who had sexually abused Boston children for decades. Written by Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer, directed by McCarthy, and exquisitely acted, the film tells the story behind the story—how the paper uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of a scandal that was hiding in plain sight, indeed, in the Globe’s own archives.

Most films about journalism are cringe-worthy. Not this one. The film vividly documents what reporters do at their best. A story usually begins with a question. Something doesn’t make sense. Reporters begin with a premise and then gather facts that support or contradict their hypothesis. The best journalists follow those facts without “fear or favor,” as the New York Times, my former employer, likes to put it. Spotlight’s reporters slowly build their case with each new lurid revelation. Nothing comes easily.

The film also lays bare the Catholic Church’s hold on Boston politics and the city’s deeply ingrained anti-Semitism and its xenophobic disdain for “outsiders.” It reveals the political and financial pressures imposed on the Globe and its investigative team by the Church and its powerful friends in a heavily Catholic city as the Globe’s Spotlight team starts to uncover the truth about decades of horrifying abuse, and the inadequacy of their own beliefs and assumptions.

The Globe’s four-person team soon discovers, for instance, that its initial theory that pedophile priests are an anomaly—a few “rotten apples,” as the Church’s representatives and supporters repeatedly assure them—is wrong. Clips from the paper’s own “morgue,” where earlier stories yellowing with age are stored, show that the Globe had run a few modest stories years earlier about a priest accused of molesting several children. But the paper failed to follow up. The editors assumed, or wanted to believe, that this abuse was an isolated incident. Subsequent tips to reporters and editors were ignored. Spotlight’s reporters find that crucial documents have disappeared from court house files. This is Boston, after all, and Cardinal Bernard Law, then the head of the diocese, has friends everywhere.

The team discovers that child abuse at the hands of God’s self-appointed disciples is no secret. In fact, it is widely known among Boston’s politicians, prosecutors, and other powerful parishioners who knew or suspected the prevalence of sexual crimes committed by priests against children but chose not to speak out. Their fear of spiritual and social excommunication allowed the abuse to fester. It takes a village to raise a child, observes Mitchell Garabedian, an irascible lawyer skillfully played by Stanley Tucci, who represents many of Boston’s child victims. And it takes the silence of a village to perpetuate such abuse.

The film bravely acknowledges that the Globe itself was among those powerful institutions that did all too little for far too long. The Globe, having been purchased by the New York Times in 1993, beset by layoffs and declining subscribers and revenue, was focused on other news before it finally confronted the horrifying truth that it had declined to pursue for decades, while the number of shattered lives mounted.


The decision to pursue the inquiry was made by the Globe’s chief editor, Martin Baron, who was a newcomer to Boston and who now heads the Washington Post. Brilliantly depicted by Liev Schreiber, Baron is a Florida native and not one of those Irish-American journalists who have most recently staffed the paper. Socially awkward, intellectually aloof, unmarried, uninterested in tickets to Red Sox games, Baron lacks the “people skills” that are crucial to advancement in most professional bureaucracies. He was the first Jew to head the paper. “So the new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball?” Jim Sullivan, a lawyer who has represented priests, asks Walter “Robby” Robinson, editor of the Spotlight series, who is portrayed by Michael Keaton, an actor’s actor.

When Baron suggests using the Freedom of Information Act to unseal documents related to the victims’ law suits, Richard Gilman, the paper’s understated, Brooks Brothers-clad publisher, is alarmed. “You want to sue the Catholic Church?” he asks. Baron persists, even when Gilman reminds him that the Church “will fight us hard on this” and that 52 percent of the Globe’s subscribers are Catholic.

When it becomes clear that Robby intends to publish Spotlight’s shocking findings, prominent Bostonians and friends try to persuade him and other senior Globe editors to kill the series. Baron’s outsider status, his Jewishness, is a natural target. Baron is not one of us, says Peter Conley (Paul Guilfoyle), who does the Church’s bidding. He reminds Robby over a drink at the Fairmont Hotel’s Oak Bar that people need the church, now more than ever. While neither the Church nor Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) who heads it in Boston is perfect, Conley acknowledges, why would the Globe risk destroying the faith of thousands of readers over a “few bad apples”? But neither Robby, who is deeply grounded in Boston, nor Baron, who has no familial stake in the community, is cowed. Conley tries driving a wedge between them. Baron is an outsider just “trying to make his mark,” he warns Robby. “He’ll be here for a few years and move on. Just like he did in New York and Miami,” he says. “Where you gonna go?”

Baron is not the film’s only outsider. The most passionate member of the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), may hail from east Boston, but his family is Portuguese. Garabedian, the lawyer who has represented 86 local victims and one of Mark’s sources—is an Armenian. In a bar, they talk obliquely about how city insiders pressure outsiders to conform. Over time, Rezendes understands that Garabedian’s gruffness and hostility are partly the result of having watched the Church hide its priests’ crimes with the connivance of the city’s leading institutions for far too long. Garabedian knows what it means to battle Boston’s powerbrokers. He initially doubts that Rezendes will pursue the story.

As the Globe reporters slowly, methodically uncover the depressing scale of the abuse, pressure not to publish grows. As the team finds dozens of cases that have been quietly settled between victims and the Church, the Spotlight reporters jettison their premise that the Vatican was simply trying to deal compassionately with a few fallen priests. The story expands. So does the team, from four to eight reporters. Baron wants them to expose not only the horrific sexual crimes of the priests, most of whom have been moved to other parishes where they continue molesting children, or to treatment centers on “sick leave,” but the Catholic Church’s role in effectively condoning the abuses.

Proving the Church’s complicity, however, turns out to be even more complex and time-consuming. For a while, a far more all-consuming story—the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington in which many Bostonians died—demand the team’s attention.


Spotlight is a process movie. In less-gifted hands, it would risk being dull, or worse, a romanticized version of journalism’s ostensible nobility. But this movie is unlike Truth, the newly released film about the bungled CBS broadcast shortly before the 2004 presidential election aiming to show that former President George W. Bush got preferential treatment to enter the National Guard to avoid the draft and was AWOL during much of his service. Starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather, and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, his talented, long-time producer, the film is based on Mapes’ book and portrays her and three others who were fired by CBS, and Dan Rather, who was prematurely retired as CBS’s anchor, as martyrs to the truth and the victims of evil corporate forces in search of White House favors. But the memos upon which Mapes and her team relied could not be authenticated, and the source who produced them changed his account of how he had obtained them after the broadcast aired, which is every reporter’s and producer’s worst nightmare. But the film downplays the team’s mistakes. Not surprisingly, CBS—which took cinematic heat in 1999 for The Insider, a powerful film about the network’s suppression of a whistle-blower’s claims about tobacco and cancer until the information had been reported elsewhere—has blasted Truth as fiction and declined to run ads for the film on its network.

Under Tom McCarthy’s wise direction, Spotlight suffers from no such hype or false notes. There is no stirring, melodramatic sound track, no confrontations or emotional “gotcha” confessions by priests, no actual scenes of sexual molestation. There are no meetings in dark, underground garages as in All the President’s Men, the highly praised 1976 film about Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s dogged exposure of the Watergate scandal in the Washington Post that toppled President Richard Nixon. Spotlight faithfully portrays the painstaking work of investigative reporters who corroborate tips, hunches, and weigh the accounts of often flawed or self-serving sources.

Some of the script’s most powerful moments are the victims’ accounts of their sexual and psychological torment. At first, the reporters question why victims of such abuse call themselves “survivors.” One such victim-turned-advocate, a twitchy, prematurely aging activist named Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff), explains to the reporters that priests often target vulnerable kids from poor backgrounds. Sexual abuse by priests, he says, robs children not just of their innocence, but their faith. “When you’re a poor kid from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” he tells Robby and his reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, (Rachel McAdams). “And when a priest pays attention to you it’s a big deal. He asks you to collect the hymnals or take out the trash, you feel special. It’s like God asking for help. And maybe it’s a little weird when he tells you a dirty joke but now you got a secret together so you go along. Then he shows you a porno mag, and you go along. And you go along, and you go along, until one day he asks you to jerk him off or give him a blow job. And so you go along with that too. Because you feel trapped. Because he has groomed you. How do you say no to God, right?”

Spotlight’s understated hero, investigative chief “Robby” Robinson, is a lapsed Catholic. So are many of the team’s other reporters. Some are afraid to tell their families the target of their investigation. Doors are often slammed shut on them. Their calls to sources start early and end late; some of their marriages dissolve. They battle editors over whether and when to publish what they know. Waiting too long risks being beaten on the story; publishing too soon risks reducing their impact by enabling the Church to pick apart or discredit the specific examples of abuse the team has identified and documented. What Baron wants to describe, and Robby senses he is right, is not just a pattern of pedophilia among the faith’s spiritual guardians, but the Church’s role in hiding its priests’ crimes and therefore in perpetuating the damage. He seeks to indict the Church as a criminal system. But his determination to hold out for the bigger story with greater impact infuriates Michael Rezendes, who argues for disclosing what the team knows as soon as the information is confirmed and thus stop the abuse. Robby’s and Marty Baron’s wiser instincts prevail, but this is not an easy call.

Spotlight’s exhaustive investigation ultimately disclosed allegations of sexual abuse of children, male and female alike, by some 249 priests and brothers within the Boston Archdiocese alone. The reporters identified more than 1,000 survivors. In late 2002, Cardinal Law resigned his post in Boston. He was reassigned to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, among the Church’s most prestigious posts.

For decades, the victims’ stories cried out for public exposure. The Globe’s Spotlight team provided it. This understated, remarkable film documents that achievement.


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Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.