The splash across the world's media in January 2012 caused by the Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe Spotlight investigation that finally exposed how 249 Catholic priests had abused around 1,000 children in the city was a wake up call for us all. However, thinking further back to my own childhood, living in a typical Church of England parish at a time where we attended church and Sunday School regularly, trustingly accepted the vicar's hand on our heads, his avuncular presence in our lives, there have always been doubts, unpursued concerns. Which maybe explains why the thought running round my head throughout this film was: 'Why do we let this keep happening?'
It was the boys in our street who first warned us never to be on your own with the Canon, as they called the vicar. He took them on a trip to Ireland, to sleep in tents. On my brother's return his only story was about how he had tried to make chips with a packet of instant mash potatoes but smutty remarks and rumours spread along our street about those who claimed to have been 'touched up'. But all of us were complicit for nobody said more, nobody told an adult.
Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), is about what happens when those who should be protecting the innocent in the community fail to do so. It is most powerful in the way it not only sets out the investigation into a worldwide cover-up by Catholic officials right up to the pristine chapels of the Vatican, but how it makes us aware of our responsibility. The Spotlight team at the Boston Globe at one point asks 'We had all the pieces. Why didn't we get it sooner?'
It all starts in Boston at The Globe, with a featured column about Catholic priest John Geoghan who was accused of abusing over 100 boys. A civil suit is filed but the details of the abuse were ordered sealed by the courts. Under a new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) a Jewish outsider, the Spotlight team uncovers a pattern of child sexual abuse by the Catholic church which was covered up by high priced lawyers and pay-offs to victims' families.
'If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,' says lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), pointing to the majority Catholic community of Boston that colluded to cover up the abuse and looked the other way as the Church transferred paedophile priests to other parishes or retired them. It took an outsider like editor Baron to instigate and drive the investigation.
Essentially Spotlight is a film about this investigation and follows the team as they work around the clock; at home, in the half light in the wee hours, interviewing victims, making endless phone calls, and we start to appreciate the sheer scale of what they are uncovering seemingly as it happens. Boring it is not. Painstakingly, they discover more and more victims, eventually gaining access to existing witness testimony locked by the courts through the influence of the Catholic Church. They spend thousands of hours cross referencing public directories showing the status of every priest in Boston over the previous twenty years and by pounding the streets end up with a list of suspected paedophile priests.
Michael Keaton plays Walter 'Robbie' Robinson who leads the Globe's investigative unit with Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carrol (Brian d'Arcy James). The church, led by Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who had known about the abuse for many years, assisted by those with influence in 53% Catholic city community continue to promote the image of the church as a force for good, whilst its abuse victims fall into drug addiction, lives of mental despair and degradation.
The victims are neither glamourised or marginalised. We see children in a side room playing while waiting to be interviewed by a lawyer over a recent report of abuse; we hear Christmas carols sung by children glowing in the church candle light as the final points in the investigation are written up prior to publication and watch as one of the Spotlight Team pins a handwritten notice to his his fridge door warning his own children not go to visit or speak to the clergymen living in a nearby street.
And it is with triumphant vindication that we almost cheer as immense trucks thunder out of the print works delivering great stacks of the final copy of the Boston Globe to doorsteps across the city. In the following days the Spotlight Team receive over 600 new complaints from victims and the final tally of abuse involves over 1,000 survivors.
It is telling that before the final credits roll, we find that although Cardinal Law was forced to resign as a result of the cover up, he was protected and assisted by friends and actually became more influential than he had ever been in Boston. Pope John Paul II named Law arch priest of one of Rome’s four papal basilicas and its most magnificent: Santa Maria Maggiore, the first church dedicated to Mary. A few months later, Law presided at the anniversary of the basilica’s dedication more than 16 centuries earlier.
Book tickets to see the multi-Oscar nominated Spotlight at FACT.