by Alvin G. Burstein
The winner of the 2016 Oscar for best film was Spotlight, an account of the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé of child abuse by that city’s Catholic clergy and the attendant cover-up. The film is powerful. The power is rooted in its realistic feel and in the psychological phenomena it captures.
The movie meticulously recreates the offices of the Boston Globe, the environment of the Spotlight team, the country’s oldest continuously operating investigative journalism unit. The film begins with the arrival of Marty Baron, a new editor-in-chief for the Globe. In his meeting with his new staff, he directs Spotlight to abandon its current project and begin an investigation of a reported case of child abuse by a parish priest and what appears to be cover-up attempts by the hierarchy. He makes it clear that he is more interested in the systemic issues than the singular case.
The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke of the importance in literature of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” Spotlight’s recreation of detail is such that there is no sense of a need to suspend disbelief. We feel like eye-witnesses to the actual events. The danger inherent in a faux documentary is an issue to which I shall return. But the artistic power of this film to sweep the viewer into a sense of being there is remarkable.
We watch the investigators as they pull at the strings of the tangled events, slowly revealing, not just a single case of abuse, but a staggering epidemic of child sexual abuse and clergy whose misdeeds are swept under the carpet, hidden by undisclosed financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements. The sordid manipulations, which include moving errant clergy from place to place and enriching the lawyers involved in “mediating” claims, are traced all the way to the diocese’s archbishop.
As we become privy to the reporters’ encounters with individual victims painfully sharing their scarifying betrayals, we feel the investigators’ mounting frustration at having to continue the painstaking assembly of information. That frustration becomes almost unbearable, when on the verge of being able to break the story, the 9/11 tragedy demands a refocusing of journalistic efforts.
Ultimately the story breaks, revealing, not a Bostonian bad apple or two, but hundreds of errant Catholic priests and over a thousand known abuse victims. The enormity of the crime is emphasized by the listing as the film ends of the cities of the world where, it is now clear, a parallel situation exists.
The emotions portrayed in the film and those stirred up in the viewer testify to the destructive potential of betrayal. A central point in self-psychology is understanding the role of parents as trusted, indeed, idolized figures upon whom the child initially depends. Healthy development involves the gradual de-idealizing of parents while retaining the ability to look up to and admire others whom we strive to emulate. Traumatic betrayals by one’s trustees are excruciating, and especially early in life, can warp and deform subsequent relationships. Thus the special burden of prudence in professions that require trust-clergy, therapists, teachers, physicians, lawyers-and that therefore have the potential to reawaken childhood dependencies and to reopen old scars.
As a faux documentary Spotlight claims, like investigative journalism, to get at the truth. Do documentaries, does investigative journalism have a responsibility to get at the whole truth? Given the compression of events stretching over years into a two-hour film, totality is out of the question. The film reveals but doesn’t explore the ability of basically decent people, a village as a whole, to close their eyes to disquieting truths. It appears that the leader of the Spotlight team had, years earlier while editor of the Metro section, printed but not followed up on a story about several cases of sexual abuse by local priests. It had been sent to the paper by one of the bad guys, a mediation lawyer.
Spotlight is a riveting film, stirring feelings, disturbing assumptions, raising questions.