Shining a ‘Spotlight’ on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: Film Review

Despite the lack of blood and gore, Bridie O’Shea explains why Spotlight is just as frightening as any horror film. 

Trigger Warning: sexual abuse

I’m not going to lie. This film was disturbing.

Disturbing in the way it should be.

Disturbing in the way it needed to be.

Disturbing because director Tom McCarthy expertly sheds light on The Boston Globe’s investigative team Spotlight who uncovered the widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Micheal Keaton) leads the team with Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carrol (Brian d’Arcy James). When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) joins the team, he pushes for Spotlight to look into a column about Catholic priest John Geoghan, who had been accused of molesting over 100 boys. From here they discover that this isn’t just about one corrupt priest in Boston, but the expensive lawyers and victim payoffs are a nation wide epidemic coming from high authority figures in the Catholic Church to keep these stories of abuse quiet.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.59.44 AM.png
Sacha (McAdams), Robby (Keaton), Michael (Ruffalo), Matt (d’Arcy James).

“When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?” – Phil Saviano, survivor.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.46.48 AM.png
Neal Huff as Phil Saviano.

I went into this film knowing the basic plot points. I knew it was about a scandal within the Catholic Church, I knew there were cover-ups and deceit, and I knew it was based on a true story. But without knowing how the film was going to play out, as soon as the journalists began to join the dots between leads and the cover ups began to unravel, I was left continuously shocked, surprised and utterly flawed.

The film is so incredibly well written, incredibly well acted and incredibly well directed that it almost doesn’t feel like a movie at all; it’s more like you’re watching a documentary. In fact, it feels as though McCarthy held back, with clean-cut sequences and little flare, to give the audience the most realistic version of the story. He also doesn’t attempt to make the journalists look like heroes. It shows the truth, that these journalists, who are damn good at their jobs, truly care about justice for the victims of these horrific acts.

And they truly are horrific.

“For decades, within the US Catholic Church, sexual misbehavior by priests was shrouded in secrecy – at every level. Abusive priests – Geoghan among them – often instructed traumatized youngsters to say nothing about what had been done to them. Parents who learned of the abuse, often wracked by shame, guilt, and denial, tried to forget what the church had done. The few who complained were invariably urged to keep silent. And pastors and bishops, meanwhile, viewed the abuse as a sin for which priests could repent rather than as a compulsion they might be unable to control.” – Michael Renezdes, from “Church allowed abuse by priest for years” , 2002 (original article that broke the story).

 And whilst there was no one main protagonist in the film, Keaton’s character Robby was a real standout. Strong, deliberate, a real leader, Robby was the backbone of this team and kept level-headed despite the fact that it would’ve been so easy to get riled up by the injustice of what was happening. This comes to light when he gives lawyer Eric Macleish an ultimatum – to give him the names of the priests he has settled cases against, or not, “We got two stories here: a story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write? Because we’re writing one of them.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 11.57.41 AM.png
The story that started it all.

The importance of this investigation is paramount as it led to more findings of major sexual abuse cases in over 100 cities within the USA and more worldwide, including over 20 cases in Australian towns and cities alone, with Newcastle being one of them. Journalist for The Newcastle Herald, Joanne McCarthy, was responsible for breaking the story in the Hunter. And if you want to hear more about that, she did a great interview with ABC’s Lateline on the topic and really brings Spotlight’s significance close to home.

As the credits rolled on the screen and the cinema lights slowly lifted, people began applauding. I was slightly confused to begin with (as I always am when people applaud a film. The director isn’t here, they can’t hear you, calm down) but then it hit me. There might’ve have been a person in this audience who knew someone who had been sexually assaulted by a figure in the Catholic Church; it could’ve been the elderly couple sitting a few rows behind me, or the burly, middle aged man who was sitting alone in the middle of the cinema, or the surprising young couple right next to me who had the choice to see something much more ‘date-night’ worthy, like ‘Dirty Grandpa’ or ‘The Revenent’, but choose to watch a film about sexual abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church. There could’ve been someone, or a number of people who had been affected in this way. The audience wasn’t clapping for the film itself. They were clapping because these journalists gave a damn. Because telling this story broke the silence. Because without casting a spotlight on this issue, too many perpetrators would be getting off the hook too easily. They were clapping because this story is important and the world needed to hear it.

If you haven’t had the chance to go and see Spotlight yet, do. It’s fantastic … and disturbing and alarming and shocking and as horrific as any classic horror film because it actually happened … but fantastic nonetheless.

 

Images: screenshots taken from Spotlight trailer by Movieclips Coming Soon.