Spotlight (2015) could have easily played as a church- or religion-bashing film. Instead, it respects the facts of a well-known scandal and presents them in a delicate, understated way. Spotlight doesn’t have its own agenda or attempt to sway public opinion about religion or Catholicism. Spotlight’s emotional value comes from the gravity of the facts, not sensationalism. The material may inspire new ways of thinking or inspire strong reactions, but that comes as the consequence of the history it depicts, not by design of the filmmakers. LifeTeen’s Catholic movie review, written by Sister Helena Burns, says Spotlight is “not a pseudo-documentary, nor is it juicy, sensational, exploitative entertainment. It is what I would call an ‘information film.’ The acting, too, is muted: none of the big name actors shine. The excellent cast seem to be humbly striving only to serve the story.”
Her response is shared by a number of prominent Catholic writers regarding Spotlight. The truth is, Catholics are now readily aware of the history of sexual abuse and pedophilia that has run through the religion. For most, the details presented by Spotlight are only expanding on a travesty of which most people have a general knowledge. Thus, it becomes only fair to explore the film in regards to its delivery of that material and its representation of the facts -- something to which Burns says “the restrained even-handedness of the storytelling is remarkable and will prevent it from being a controversial film. There’s a lot of dialogue in the film, but it’s never tedious. The narrative and the horror is in the information itself each time more is unearthed. Why should you see this film? To honor the victims, first of all, and second of all to understand how corruption — of any sort — works, in order to be vigilant and oppose it.”
Spotlight also scrutinizes (to a certain extent) the culpability of The Boston Globe, the home of its protagonists, for not running the story years earlier when a member of the Spotlight team heard about the scandal from a self-identified victim. The understated heroism of the Spotlight team is colored by this tardiness.
Current Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who took office after Cardinal Law (featured in Spotlight) disgracefully resigned following the events depicted in the film, said Spotlight reveals how the Globe’s work forced the church “to deal with what was shameful and hidden.” As The Boston Globe writes, “in a statement to the archdiocesan newspaper The Pilot on Thursday, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston said the movie depicts ‘a very painful time’ in church history. He said the church continues to seek the forgiveness of those harmed, and he reiterated his commitment to ridding the church of abusive priests.”
The archbishop has no plans to discourage people from seeing the film. “The media’s investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself — to deal with what was shameful and hidden — and to make the commitment to put the protection of children first, ahead of all other interests,” O’Malley said.
The effects of Spotlight’s investigative work are still being felt, and as the film's ending indicates, the issues are far from resolved. Spotlight effectively cast a bright "spotlight" on the problems by raising public awareness. That is something many modern Catholic representatives maintain is crucial to preventing the behavior.
For The National Catholic Reporter, Father Peter Daly writes, “I went to see the movie alone. When the movie was over I sat in stunned silence in the theater and waited for everyone else to leave. I did not want to have to talk. Above all I did not want to run into any parishioners. Our church behaved horribly. Every seminarian should see this movie. The USCCB should spend an evening watching it together and discussing it. The only disinfectant that will really lead to cleansing is the bright light of truth. The Archdiocese of Boston would never have reformed without the Globe stories... Thirteen years after the scandal broke many people have still not gotten the message. There is a new clericalism and arrogance among many of the younger clergy today.”
That is, largely, why the story of Spotlight’s work in 2001-2002 is still relevant today. A lot of reform has taken place within the Catholic religion since then, but it hasn’t changed everything. Daly reminds us that “no American bishop has ever gone to jail for covering up these felonies on their watch.” And as the film reiterates to us through its closing title cards, this issue wasn’t specific to the Boston area -- it’s universal.
That said, while the film gives audiences the impression the Catholic church has the power and desire to control and quell anything that casts it in a bad light, it is refreshing to see a generally positive response to Spotlight. If McCarthy had produced a more sensational or romanticized version of the events, it would open the film up for legitimate criticism and discredit its authenticity. As it is, the straightforward and downplayed nature of the film builds to a conclusion one cannot deny, even if it is difficult to accept.