That scene, and the choice to end on it, embody what makes “Spotlight” distinct as a movie both about journalism and about sexual assault. McCarthy is willing to tell a story where reporting is the beginning of a long process of reform, rather than the decisive stroke that ends an injustice. And it’s a reckoning with not just the behavior of individual priests, but the culture of a church and a city that enabled them to attack children.
There have been lots of fictional Bostons, but “Spotlight” is the rare film with a sense of the city’s clannishness. And McCarthy is finely attuned to the ways in which Boston’s tribal culture both made victims vulnerable and could be used to discredit anyone who dared to challenge its institutions and priorities.
As the “Spotlight” team begins to talk to victims, it becomes clear to them how the culture of respect for priests led Catholic children into their abusers’ custody.
“I’d never even seen Back Bay,” a man named Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton) recalls of an invitation from Father Shanley to go to a Red Sox game. Shanley exploited Joe’s poverty and curiosity about the city, making him an offer not just to expand his horizons, but to take him to one of the city’s most important cultural events. “He offered to get me ice cream,” Patrick McSorley (Jimmy LeBlanc) tells the reporters, laying out a blunt formula. “It’s a priest. I’m a kid. So I go.” And Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a fragile, determined man who leads a survivor’s group, takes the equation a step further: “How do you say no to God, right? This is not just physical abuse. It’s spiritual abuse.”
The Catholic Church’s power made children and their parents inclined to trust priests and to find ways to blame themselves rather than the church for their own abuse. “Spotlight” also looks at the ways that people who stood outside of Boston’s prevailing Irish and Italian Catholic cultures were marginalized and discredited, even if those outsiders were more capable of seeing flaws in the city clearly. Treating outsiders as inherently discredited was a way to keep their critiques from gaining ground in the first place.
When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the new editor of the Globe first meets with Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the cardinal gives him a catechism as a “guide to the city of Boston.” As Baron’s Globe begins to investigate the church, he’s left off the guest list for Catholic Charities’ annual gala in an effort to close him off from the elite social life of the city.
And others are outcasts as well. “I’m Armenian. How many Armenians do you know in Boston?” Mitchell Garabedian (a predictably outstanding Stanley Tucci), a lawyer who represents abuse victims, says of his own outsider status. “This city. These people. Making us feel we don’t belong. but they’re no better than us. Look at how they treat their children.” Garabedian has been marginalized as unpleasant, which is true, and crazy, which is not. He’s a difficult visionary with the courage to look at a truth no one else wants to acknowledge and a personality curdled by disappointment that makes it harder for him to convince anyone else of what is going on.
The reporters on the Spotlight team are, in their own ways, part of that culture, and have played roles in causing that disappointment. Pfeiffer goes to church with her Nana (Eileen Padua), and Carroll attends at least holiday services with his family. Rezendes, the member of the team who has the most in common with the cantankerous Garabedian, confesses that he’s lost his hope of renewed faith in the course of the investigation. “I think I figured that one day I would actually go back,” he admits. “I was holding on to that.” And Robinson, who is tight with a number of prominent Catholic lawyers, ultimately acknowledges that he punted on an earlier opportunity to investigate clerical sexual abuse.
Their very willingness to investigate separates the Spotlight team from their families, neighbors and even their colleagues at the Globe. And as they report, they come to realize how pervasive clergy sexual abuse is, even in their own lives and neighborhoods.
Carroll discovers that one of the church’s “treatment centers,” where abusive priests were sent for ineffective counseling, is in his neighborhood. When Pfeiffer confronts Father Paquin (Richard O’Rourke), a priest who’s all too willing to admit that he abused children though he insists “I never raped anyone. I should know the difference. I was raped,” she finds that he and his sister live across the street from a playground. When Father Talbot, a priest who ministered to students at Boston College High School, is accused, Robinson tracks down a classmate there who tells Robinson that Talbot abused him, an admission the man hasn’t even made to his wife. And Rezendes eventually breaks down over the possibility that he himself could have been a victim.
There’s a bracing cynicism to the end of “Spotlight.” Carroll leaves a copy of the newspaper on the steps of the treatment center, but the most he can do is to make it clear that he knows what the center is for and what its residents have done. Garabedian may ask if he can keep a copy of the Globe, but he tells Rezendes to “Keep doing your work” and heads back into his office to meet with a young boy who was recently abused. Rezendes and his colleagues might have convinced themselves that the abuse was largely in the past, but Garabedian and “Spotlight” make a point of teaching him and us that those violations are ongoing.
That’s the thing about culture. Identifying that it exists, and mapping its reach and pervasiveness, is very hard work. But actually changing that culture is a much more awesome task.