The Church, by definition, is a sacred thing. Holy. Its very buildings reflect that hallowed call: cathedrals built in the shape of crosses, steeples that point to heaven. Those inside are thought to be the hands and feet of God Himself, serving as His reflection in this fallen, fractured world.
But while God’s Church is sacred, its churches can be less so. Those who fill sanctuaries are products of the world, too. Broken and battered. Sometimes evil slithers under the door, tainting classrooms and pulpits, defiling the very altar of our faith. Our priests and pastors and leaders can fail. Our shepherds can turn into wolves.
It’s hard to imagine a more powerful institution in Boston than the Catholic church in 2001. People innumerable turn to the spiritual leaders there for help and solace, for peace and friendship. Through the diocese and its charities, thousands of people are fed and clothed, educated and spiritually nurtured.
Wayward priests? Well, they’re usually shuffled off elsewhere. And when one of those priests, John Geoghan, arrives in court, accused of molesting young boys, his circumstance draws sparse coverage from The Boston Globe. But even if the Globe does get interested in following the story, it’ll be difficult to do: Whatever the diocese knows of Geoghan’s behavior is sealed from prying eyes.
Then the Globe brings in Marty Baron as its new editor in chief, and he suggests that the paper’s journalists might want to poke around a bit more. Perhaps the Catholic church knows more about Geoghan and other pedophilic priests than it’s admitting. And Baron wonders whether Spotlight—a small division of Globe investigative journalists who dig into potential stories for months at a time—might be the appropriate team to handle it.
At first, Spotlight editor Robby Robinson balks. Spotlight, he says, has always been autonomous: It picks its own stories.
“Well,” Baron says slowly. “Would you consider picking this one?”
Spotlight would. And it eventually shows the world that, while the Church may be sacred, those who fill it and lead it can be anything but.
Spotlight, the movie, makes for difficult viewing, particularly for those who hold priests and cardinals and the Catholic church itself in high regard. Indeed, the real-life scandal on which Spotlight is based is a difficult story for many Christians to acknowledge. But as painful as it is, it’s absolutely right to laud those who brought the outrage into the open. Secrets like these need to be exposed: As Luke 8:17 reads, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
The journalists covering the story—Robby, Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes and Matty Carroll—work tirelessly to bring those hidden things to light. It takes months of groundwork, annoying persistence and a willingness to confront. It’s discomforting for the diocese to be thrown into the role of a villain here, as it pushes the journalists to just go along to get along. But these men and women refuse to do so, and I’d like to think that the whole of the Christian Church is healthier today because of their diligence and doggedness.
Faith and religion are, of course, huge components in Spotlight. Throughout the movie, the power of the diocese is emphasized by massive cathedrals looming over seemingly every outdoor interview. Cardinal Bernard Francis Law is clearly one of Boston’s most powerful leaders—speaking of God’s love on national television in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, interacting with politicians and power brokers, hosting a customary sit-down with the new editor and giving him a “welcome” gift of a Catholic catechism. It’s a guide to the city of Boston, Law says. The message—and even implied threat—is resounding: The Archdiocese of Boston is not an institution to be trifled with.
The priests themselves were equally powerful in their own right. When a priest asks a young boy—a victim of abuse—to gather up hymnals, the lad says, “It’s like God asking for help.” Indeed, boys (and girls) were flattered and honored when a priest would show them extra attention. And when that attention became criminally inappropriate, confused children would rationalize it or excuse it. “How do you say no to God, right?” one victim says.
All the Spotlight reporters say they’re lapsed Catholics: Matty now attends a Presbyterian church, while Sacha says she sometimes attends Mass with her deeply religious “Nana.” But the story takes a toll on even this modicum of faith. Sacha says later she can’t go to Mass anymore; she looks at the priest and simply grows too angry. Mike says he left the Catholic church as a teen, but always imagined himself returning to the fold. Now, the idea of going back is unthinkable. “They knew, and they let it happen!” he exclaims. “To kids!”
But while Spotlight is unflinching in its criticism of the Archdiocese of Boston in particular and the Catholic church as a whole, at least one character—one only heard on the phone—says he still considers himself Catholic. The Catholic church is made of men, he says. But the Church—the real Church—is eternal.
We hear that Cardinal Law once called the “power of God” down upon the Globe, and how a week later the editor broke his leg while skiing. The first exposé is published on the Feast of Epiphany. “Seems appropriate,” someone says. We hear children singing “Silent Night.”
The first Spotlight story suggests that at least 70 priests were involved in sexual abuse. The journalists suspect as many as 87, in line with predictions from a former priest who studied the presence of pedophilia in the priesthood. He alleges that 6% of priests abuse children, which would put the number of abusive priests in Boston at 90. This expert also insists that, despite their vows of celibacy, only 30% of priests are completely chaste.
While interviewing a victim, Sacha tells him that he needs to be very specific about what happened: Euphemisms like molested won’t cut it. As a result, the interviews, which we observe, can be both disturbing and crude. We hear briefly about oral and anal sex, amatory touching and strip poker games, all perpetrated upon minors.
There are no flashback scenes of the abuse.
Many victims break into tears. One admits he’s never even told his wife about the abuse. One effeminate victim says he’s gay, and that the priest was the first person who told him it was OK. One priest confesses to Sacha that he “fooled around” with young boys, but says there was no harm in it and that he didn’t get any sexual gratification from it. He adds that he was raped himself, so he should know what rape looks like.
We hear that some victims took their own lives as a result of the abuse. One man says a priest began his advances on him “just after my dad killed himself.”
A half-dozen f-words and nearly 25 s-words. We hear interjections of “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “h—” and “p—.” God’s name is used in conjunction with “d–n” six or more times. Jesus’ name is abused close to 10 times, not including three or four uses of the stand-in “jeez.” We also hear several uses of the f-word euphemisms “frigging” and “freaking.”
We learn that many victims turned to alcohol or drugs after the abuse, and one man’s arms are covered with needle-scar track marks. Several ancillary characters smoke. Whiskey, wine and beer is consumed—with one guy, while drinking beer at a Red Sox game, quipping that drinking is a great way to deal with the game. Some priests would ply their targets with alcohol, we’re told.
The pedophilic priest scandal was not limited to Boston. Slides at the end of the movie document many of the larger communities where abuses have occurred and offending priests—instead of being charged in a court of law or, at the very least, booted out of the priesthood—were instead moved to other dioceses, where many went on to abuse again.
When I was a reporter for a daily paper in Colorado Springs, I had opportunity to interview victims of priestly abuse—three brothers, the oldest first victimized when he was 8 years old. They were in their 50s and 60s when I talked with them, and they still struggled with the aftermath. Only one of the brothers claimed to still be a Christian.
The abuse detailed in Spotlight sounded so familiar, so true: How the kids were almost awed to be the focal point of a beloved religious leader, how they were systematically groomed, how confused they were when the relationship turned sexual.
These coercive elements of power and faith make Spotlight a challenging, troubling movie—hard to watch, hard to get out of your mind. It sticks with you, as well-told stories do. As shocking stories do. It’s a horrific reminder of the evil that people can do. Any people.
Spotlight has its content issues, many of which are, sadly, integral to its central story. And it is undoubtedly a vehicle that will cause doubt among the faithful, disdain among those looking in from the outside. The sexual scandal revealed in part by the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe is, with certainty, a roadblock to religion for many. It was for the reporters who covered it, for many of the victims who lived it, for some who simply read and watched the story from afar. And it will be a roadblock for some moviegoers, too. This is not a film that encourages us to embrace the spiritual richness found in the churches around us. Instead, it encourages deep skepticism about how God’s plan for His people can ever be realized in a world so full of sin.
But maybe that skepticism is good. Even wise. The Bible itself shows us many a fallen leader, many a hypocrite. None of those wayward souls diminished the Light that is Christ. And if we are honest, we will realize that what we see in Spotlight is a mess of humanity’s making, not God’s.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.