'Spotlight' The Movie: When Boston's Wall of Silence Crumpled

The film "Spotlight" was recently released, based on the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Boston Archdiocese’s willful coverup of child molestation and abuse. The reviews have been, like the movie itself, scattered.

This is, without a doubt, a shattering film. Well made and well acted, it nevertheless seems doomed to the obscurity that greets certain films that are just a little too difficult. The timing is bad --released as America heads toward Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year, audiences have every reason to turn towards something feel good and fun. The story is 15 years on, and something we all feel we know a little too well. As an audience, we don’t want to forget, we just don’t want to remember. And that, too, is part of this story.

Fifteen years is not so very long a time. In historical terms, it is everything and nothing. It isn’t yesterday, but it also isn’t a period piece. Yes, a decade and a half ago, a desktop computer really was a desktop computer ...a squat humming plastic box the color of dust. Cellphones were all -- mainly -- still flip phones then. But, it wasn’t that long ago. Yes, outside of Boston, few non-Catholics had ever heard of Cardinal Law and few Americans could find Afghanistan on a map. But this is not the sort of dramatic period piece that can coast over discomforting facts with the comfort of distance. 

This is a frankly uncomfortable film about the most uncomfortable of stories. It becomes even more disturbing because this is a film about stories -- not just a story of wrong-doing, but a story about the stories people tell themselves when they try to avoid and forget the stories that we do not like to tell.

Pictured, left to right, the 'Spotlight' team of journalists at The Boston Globe: Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Keaton as 'Robby' Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes.

This is also, sadly, not just a Boston story, or an Irish story -- the Catholic population of Boston is so overwhelmingly Irish in origin that Catholic and Irish are almost synonymous in Boston -- or an American story or an Irish-American story. And it is certainly not a newspaper story -- although in a way it is a story about a journalism legend slow to die. It is a story about fear. And it is fear that shines most strongly through this otherwise murky film -- fear of change, fear of shame, fear of outsiders, fear of the cliquish power of the clubby-fraternity of Irish Catholic men who dominated Boston by the end of the 20th century, fear of sin, fear of silence, fear of revelation, fear of disbelief and fear of power.

Appropriately enough in a story about stories, the reporters dominate. And yet, these are not the black-and-white crusading journalists who have dominated movie screens since the 1930s -- instead they are troubling in their realism. (Mark Ruffalo, in particular, skirts the edges of neurosis -- yes he wants to tell the story, but he also wants to break the story. And he seems truly outraged by the fact that someone else might get the story first.) But it is Michael Keaton in his role as Walter “Robby” Robinson who embodies the almost queasy acceptance of complicity that systemic corruption forces on even the most unaware of bystanders. Robinson is an Irish-Catholic. Proudly Boston bred and proudly Boston true. A reporter. And yet, for much of the film remained oblivious of the wall of silence raised around the most heinous of criminals who have smilingly committed the least forgivable of crimes. 

So ... worth watching? Yes. Some stories not only must be told but also must be heard. For Christmas? Maybe not.

Views: 1101

Tags: Clergy, Faith, Film, Journalism, Movies, Reviews, Sexual Abuse

Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on December 29, 2015 at 12:34pm
I'm reluctant to make comments on the Priest/pedophile Catholic issue. While I do abhor the fact it happened and was covered up; I also believe that there was/is an opportunity for those with an axe to grind with the Catholic Church to embellish the horror even more. That said, you have sparked my interest in this movie because you referred to Cardinal Law: I was shocked when this story broke back 15 plus years ago; I knew Cardinal Law's family, (I didn't know him personally) so I followed everything I could read about this scandal. I was very angry, still am, that instead of holding this man accountable for the despicable part he had in this cover up; they rewarded him with a safe, cushy job in Rome. I will go see the movie and I'll probably be sorry as it will awaken old anger. Thank you.
Comment by Sarah Nagle on December 29, 2015 at 3:09pm


I completely understand your reluctance to discuss the Priest/pedophile issue. Its one of the reasons I dragged my feet watching the movie and then dragged my feet reviewing it. But I am relieved --glad isn't the right word-- I saw this movie. In part because it made me really think seriously about something that I think has just shocked and appalled so many people that in general we don't stop to think seriously about it... And in part because there is one moment in the film when a group of editors is arguing about how/when/whether to break the story and one character says "There are two ways to tell this story. It is either about the sex abuse scandal, or it is about the coverup." And I think that is the real reason Boston opened the floodgates for a lot of people... because it was about the coverup. It was about a Cardinal basically enabling the abuse of the most vulnerable. Any powerful organization will probably have a few so-called "bad apples" but if the organization --or authorities within that organization-- chooses to protect those bad apples it taints the whole organization. I think it is the coverup that in the long run will be more damaging than the scandal.

If you want to see another movie that touches on --in some ways-- the fallout of the scandal from an Irish perspective I strongly recommend seeing Calvary. It came out last year and Brendan Gleeson plays a decent man of God --the kind of Priest everyone wants to know-- who is dealing with the aftermath of what happens when people lose their faith in the structures of their lives. It is a very difficult movie to watch, but I think in a lot of ways it is redemptive. And it is a very powerful movie. (It is also a very modern interpretation of a classic passion play. Which I found kind of fascinating because a lot of modern religious films attempt to go for a more Roman epic style.) I think it might make a good follow up piece for Spotlight.

Comment by michael dunne on December 29, 2015 at 5:35pm

One of your recent features included the life of father Flanagan. Over the Christmas I watched Spencer Tracy play the part in the film Boystown and his stand for the underprivileged and orphaned. When Father Flanagan visited Ireland he was asked to leave (I think by the clergy or Christian Brothers because they did not like his take on how these institutions were run. I have not researched this but this is the impression I got from your article)

Geraldine, the greatest cover up was by the parents of these abused school going children who would tell their parents of the wrong doings of the priests on them as altar boys or by the Christian Brothers as their appointed teachers. The aspiring middle class were conceivably more at risk because the predators focused on soft clean smelling little boys and girlswho wore clean underwear. These parents sadly craved respectability that to go against a clergyman or even a teacher in staunchly Catholic Ireland was a very big and brave step to take. In cases of incest/pedophilia, it is not unheard of for the mother to cover for the father and even to threaten the child victim should they threaten to report the abuse. A child who didn't wear underpants was probably less at risk as his father or mother, being poor, would have less societal status to worry about and would more likely react, even violently. The greatest cover ups of sexual and other violence is in the home. That is not for a minute excusing the small percentile of religious who degraded Christianity and made cowards of their fellow clergymen who kept silent. The sad fact is that in Ireland today, there is still a crisis in finding a place of safety for abused women and children. So the politics of sending father Flanagan away from our country over a half century ago is still questionable.

Spotlight is probably a film that had to be made and the issues raised have to be dealt with.

Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on December 29, 2015 at 6:51pm
Michael, I grew up in Ireland and was educated by nuns for 12 years; I have no horror stories or bad experiences to report. I loved my nuns and despite the fact that I lived in the country, with very little in the way of wealth or material things, I had a very happy childhood. The picture you write about of incest and abuse... I was never exposed to or even heard of its existence. I knew of families where the children were beaten by their fathers after a day or night of drinking. I do recall the level of respect that was required for the clergy, Christian Brothers and the Nuns. You couldn't ever utter a derogatory word. I have lived here for most of my life, I was 20 years old when I came and I am in my 70's now. You say this is common behavior still in Ireland! It's almost incomprehensible to me: I have so many nieces and nephews and even gran nieces and nephews now; all of them are well educated, the ones who have graduated have good jobs and good productive lives. I guess I should consider myself lucky. I am going to see "Spotlight" tomorrow. I may write my review; depending on how I feel about it.
Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on December 30, 2015 at 5:33pm
Well, here goes Sara; I went to see "Spotlight" today: it is powerful, thought provoking and appalling in so many ways. I think for those of us who are/were Catholic, we critique it with deep emotion and disbelief. Those who are not Catholic probably see it in a more objective way, either way it does evoke disbelief and sadness. The Cardinals and senior members of the Church will, or should forever carry this sordid scandal in their hearts and minds. While I don't want to seem like I'm making excuses for them, the cover up went beyond the Clergy; the good old church boys club made excuses and coyly tried to ward off the news media investigating. The media also, were reluctant to take on the Catholic Church and expose a scandle. There was only one winner in the Boston case; Cardinal Law... He was rewarded with a cushy position and a Villa in Rome. I hope I live to see the day he is brought to accountability. My faith is still intact and I will pray for the victims. I'll let God judge the ones who failed Him and His Church. There are many more good sincere Priests out there, doing good work for the poor and sick. Many other Religions have bad behavioral scandals, as do famous sports Coaches, Boy Scouts Leaders etc:. I guess as a Chatolic, I expected a higher level of ethics from my Church. A word to Michael Dunne: I feel your anger in your written words. I sincerely hope one day you can let go of it, anger is a heavy burden to carry. The acting and the setting for the story is Brilliant.
Comment by michael dunne on December 31, 2015 at 7:38pm

Happy New Year and peace on earth to people of good will or otherwise.

Comment by Geraldine Callaghan on January 3, 2016 at 6:44pm
Thank you Michael for the very sad but real insightful reply. Since I raised two law enforcement officers I fully understand the anger, and feeling of hopelessness that people in your position faced and are still facing. My sons work with this every day; my daughter is a nurse and she too was exposed to the scourge drugs has on our society. She almost left the profession when she saw how many babies were born addicted to drugs from their drug addicted mothers.The heartbreak of watching them go through withdrawals. I never saw Ireland from your viewpoint. I do thank my God every day that I have been blessed in so many ways. I had a very innocent childhood, with very little in the way of material things. My mother died when I was 9 yrs. old. The nuns were wonderful to me and my sisters. I had a very hardworking Dad, and a large supportive family, as well as a supportive village of wonderful people. The clergy pedophile and the orphanage abuse stories are hard to fathom, for me. Poverty, abuse and depravity is all over the world.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 4, 2016 at 7:33am

As a child growing up in Ireland in the 1940/50 .. I can identify with michael dunne . The National School I attended was governed by Nuns, some who I wouldsay were somewhat caring because they did not beat or verbally or emotionally abuse any children. 

The Mother Superior and her cohorts however, were cruel beyond words. They would beat those of us who happened to come from an impoverished   background , bullying ,and constantly hit us on the knuckles with a ruler, put  us into the corner with our face to the wall, for what reasons, because they could, basically. With one teacher and the Mother Superior , holding me tightly, bruising my arm while they discussed in front of me how stupid I was and telling me I woudl end up as a nobody...

When I did eventually recover somewhat from these abusive school day's I went back to school in the UK where I gained the necessary qualifications to gain entry in University and it was there that I learned that I was Dyslexic . .... How I wished that I could have stuck my Photo and my Degree Certificate in their faces......... I thought I had moved on from that..........  Sorry .

With regard with the abuse that happened in the era that Fr Farrell was banished from Ireland ....I am including an excerpt from my next book 

To try and analyse the concept of a city that had been subjected to shameful neglect prior to Ireland gaining its independence 1923 – it would be historians who would be the experts in this subject.  So much analysis of this subject has been written about that there is sufficient historical material in the National archives noting that  throughout this relatively short ten year period of Independence in Ireland - both the of Free State Governments-Fianna Fail and Cumann na nGaedheal’ had inherited the appalling Institutions of Workhouses ; Industrial Reform Schools; Artane Institution and the like- not least the  ‘Magdalen Laundries’ so called because they were intended to provide shelter and a secure place to live and work for many thousands of women who were known as fallen women… Ostensibly some of these Laundries were said to be a vocational training school for girls- in the early 1900 some girls did voluntarily opt to enter these institutions rather than be placed in the Workhouse. Most of the Workhouses ceased to exist under the TW Cosgrove Government Cumann na nGaedheal’ , The Magdalen Laundries however continued to exist for many decades to come.

Certainly it was a sad indictment of the those who ruled Ireland [British Empire] for over 700 years that the new Free State Independent Ireland 1923-1936 found  itself inheriting an nearly bankrupt economy  with  the lack of Social Infrastructure and  Institutional abuse overwhelming to say the least .  Over seventy years later however, these reasons could not be dismissed as easily. It was only in 1999 – when the then Irish Government Fianna Faíl –in coalition with the Progressive Democrats were under fierce pressure to investigate the atrocities at the Magdalen Laundrie’s; for all of the abuse; the cruelty, that had been perpetrated on all the young women who had been placed there – for one reason or another - that the Government succumbed to the pressure and ordered a commission to be set up to investigate all of these allegations. [quite a long time for some lessons to be learned!!] 

So Geraldine Callaghan,  I am very envious of the fact that there were Nuns in my homeland who did have the best interests of their school children at their heart. For those of us who do not . School days spent away from school were the happiest time...    


Comment by Norah McEvoy on January 4, 2016 at 9:16am

I am so blessed to've been educated by very decent teachers but my poor aunt, throughout her life never forgot the five years she boarded in a convent from around 1918 - 1923 and the brutal treatment of children by nuns. When some 'nun' relatives used to visit our house I made sure to stand well clear of them, just in case. It took very brave people to open up the corruption used to cover up for so many perverted and cruel clergy... 


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 4, 2016 at 10:50am

I would agree with you Norah mcEnoy,,,, those of us whose parents were not articulate , were at the mercy of the nuns and all the Clergy of that era, really , society at large bestowed on them ' an aura of piousness' that mere mortals  like us , would not dare challenge.  They hid behind their cloak of pious black and white habits , with the priest hiding behind the black attire and white collar.

Forgive me for painting all the clergy of this era with the same brush , however, what has come out over the last two decade of physical / sexual / psychological  abuse, does taint the image of the  Catholic clergy in past eras....

However, I hasten to add that the God that I truly believe in, does not hide behind any cloak of Black .White   habit of respectability . He operates in a in caring, loving ; forgiving environment that can be observed all over the world, by kind and caring actions, not only by Catholics but by other religious domination's. It is the Roman Catholic Faith of my childhood that I believe in ,      


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