THE film Spotlight (Cert. 15) is a clear demonstration of Emile Durkheim’s The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Social facts cannot be adequately explained by psychological facts. Hence the Roman Catholic Church failed to explain away incidents of child abuse by reference to psychological immaturities in a few priests.
The Oscar-nominated film, based on the real-life findings of Spotlight, The Boston Globe’s research team, chronicles the piecing together of overwhelming evidence that such abuse was systemic. Without exonerating the lack of self-control among some clerics, we’re being told that an institutionally imposed celibacy rather than one freely chosen leads to these kinds of aberrations. It is not good that man should be alone.
A fresh editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, taciturn but determined), directs Spotlight to follow up the case of a local priest accused of multiple crimes. It results in unearthing what turns out to be a global cover-up, one that had been going on for decades. The spectator sees more of the game. That Baron is from out of town and Jewish may be a significantly contributing factor to the exposé that follows.
More than half the city is Roman Catholic, and a hitherto cosy alliance with the religious hierarchy may well have compromised the newspaper’s independence. The great and the good of Boston attempt, ever so nicely, to subvert the team’s pursuit of truth. Ironically, it may be the journalists’ Christian upbringing that impels them to serve justice rather than collude with its RC leaders.
As the reporters dig and delve, they happen upon a key witness whom we never see. In a series of telephone conversations with Richard Sipe (voiced by Richard Jenkins), a former priest turned psychotherapist alerts them to the enormity of the problem. “It’s not sexual abuse. It’s spiritual abuse.”
One victim describes himself as a survivor. Unlike him, many of those molested never made it into adulthood. He accuses the paper of having ignored his previous attempts to prove that dozens of priests in Boston alone were guilty. Collusion is rife. “If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes a whole village to abuse a child.”
We’ve been aware for some time of how widespread the procuring of children for sexual purposes was. That’s the problem: we know the story too well. Of course, we should be grateful for the dogged investigations of these journalists. It is all very worthy; but lots of rushing around to follow up leads doesn’t make a good film. The ecclesiastical equivalent of All the President’s Men about Watergate it is not.
There is even the clichéd row between one of the reporters, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and his team leader, Robinson (Michael Keaton). Rezendes thinks that they should print the story on the basis of the few offending priests they have discovered. Robinson wants to hold back until they can indicate how systemic this malaise actually is: social facts preferable to psychological facts.
Spotlight is descriptive more than it is analytical. It informs but fails, unlike Almodóvar’s Bad Education, to move us. How sickened are these reporters think so. And, as far as the Church is concerned, we learn next to nothing about why a religious institution claiming that it is the truth that sets us free would deny a legacy of deception and brushing under the carpet.