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SIGNIS statement - Spotlight

Melbourne, December 15th, 2015 (Peter Malhone). Since its screening in competition in Venice, 2015, and its subsequent screenings at various festivals, then award nominations, including several for Best Film of 2015, the reputation of Spotlight has grown. For the statement by the SIGNIS Jury in Venice, see here.

It is primarily a film about investigative journalism, the work of the Boston Globe in 2001. Memories of this kind of film go back to 1976 and the Watergate exposé in All the Presidents Men. At the same time as the release of Spotlight, there was a very powerful film on investigative journalism that is well worth seeing, Truth, about the NBC investigation of George W. Bush’s going into the National Guard to avoid service in Vietnam – showing the detail of investigation but also highlighting the need for consistent verification otherwise the investigation is not credible.

The Boston Globe’s investigation focused on sexual abuse, clergy and survivors. This means that it is a film of particular Catholic interest. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and a member of the papal committee on sexual abuse, wrote a statement in October, acknowledging the realities of abuse in the church, acknowledging that the film treats an important subject.

There have been films on clerical sexual abuse since 1990, quite a number, documentaries and feature films. They have been serving as a contribution to an examination of conscience by the church, an acknowledgement of realities for victims and survivors, a critique of the behaviour of church authorities, the need for recognition of sinfulness in the church. And, in their ways, they have contributed to a better, even wiser, understanding.

Reviews of Spotlight have been very favourable. The screenplay, co-written by Josh Singer and the director, Thomas McCarthy, is carefully and strongly written. Performances are quite powerful. The film keeps audience interest. The four journalists in the Spotlight investigative team are played by Michael Keaton, Mark Rufo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James. At one stage it emerges that each of the four was Catholic educated but no longer practising, some “pissed off” at the church and one of them, after reading the documents, saying that he had hoped to return to the church, but now… There is of course, a sad emotional impact, audiences identifying with the journalists in their quest, disgust at the stories that are revealed, compassion for those who have suffered.

One of the difficulties about the film is its setting in 2001. Because the film is focused on Boston and the Spotlight team who undertake the investigation, the film gives an impression, a kind of American triumphalism, that it was the Boston Globe which was the first to do this kind of investigation. In many ways, the American church was slow off the mark in acting (admitted by the journalists in the film), while investigations were under way, led by Canada, and making progress in such countries as the UK, Ireland, Australia, in the first half of the 1990s. Investigations in European countries came later. A government enquiry in Ireland was to be inaugurated not so many years after the work of the Boston Globe. In Australia, the documents Towards Healing (and the Melbourne Response) were launched at the end of 1996.

It is interesting to note that there is little or no reference to the police and their enquiries into complaints about sexual abuse. There is no discussion of reporting to the police. Investigations preceded the Spotlight investigations because Father Geoghan was arrested the same month as the first article appeared in the Boston Globe.

Reference is made in the screenplay of Spotlight to material being sent to the paper as early as 1993 and then in 1996 but the paper did not follow through at the time. The Boston story, according to the film, went into action with the appointment of the new editor, Marty Baron, who had noticed a column about offender Father John Geoghan and suggested to his team that it needed following up, asking about knowledge by the hierarchy, including Cardinal Bernard Law, and an investigation that would expose any systematic faults, rather than an attack on individual church hierarchy.

There had been a film, Our Fathers, 2005, where there was a focus on Boston victims of abuse, their telling their stories, the work of lawyers, encounters of some of the victims with the perpetrators, and meetings with Cardinal Law who was played by Christopher Plummer. Spotlight has very few images of priests themselves, concentrating on interviews with the survivors with their harrowing stories. There is a brief prologue in 1976, complaints against Father Geoghan, the child, parents, and a reassuring priest helping the family, suggestions that information was given to the hierarchy but not followed on up, highlighting the transfer of offending priests from one parish to another.

In fact, the main priest in this film is Cardinal Law himself, receiving Marty Baron in his house, offering to collaborate with the media, Baron assuring him of the independence of the press, and the Cardinal giving him a gift of the Catholic Catechism. He is also related glimpsed as a Catholic Charities function. But, there is a great deal of talk about him, what he knew and what he didn’t know about abusive priests, the considerable number, his working in-house on cases, working with various lawyers for settlements and their keeping all this information confidential. The documents were sealed and it is only when the Boston Globe intervenes that a judge allows them to be released. A letter written by one of the auxiliary bishops of Boston years earlier, maintaining secrecy and confidentiality, becomes part of the screenplay.

There is one priest in the film, Father Richard Paquin, who lives with his sister in retirement, interviewed by a journalist – who admits to her the truth of his experience with the boys but emphasises several times that he got no gratification from the experiences. One of the journalists discovers to his horror that his house is not very far from one of the houses designated for treatment of priests. At the end he is seen delivering a big number of papers with the article at this house.

As has been mentioned, more vivid pictures of the priests emerge from the interviews with the survivors, with the head of the organisation, SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests), Paul Saviano who had sent material to the paper in 1996 and felt frustrated at their lack of action. Listening to his description of his own experiences, his age, the grooming, the process of trust, leading to the physical, sexual and psychological abuse, makes the point very strongly. An interview with an awkward man, groomed by Father Shanley who was later arrested, highlights once again grooming, the use of pornography, nudity and sexual gratification for a young boy who is discovering his homosexual orientation. A third man, Patrick, explains the process of the priest singling him out, the affirmation felt, and then the touch and his freezing, and the abuse. The drug scars in his arm are quite evident.

The sequences of interviews are possibly stronger in their impact, the audience listening to the words and seeing the body language of the survivors, than if there were visuals of the abuse.

The work of the investigative team is meticulous, painstakingly followed through over a very long period, checking sources, persuading interviewees to speak and be recorded, checking clips from the vast archives of Globe, trolleys and folders of them, searching in the Catholic Directories of these years and discovering so many priests listed as sick or absent or on leave. The journalists were able to make a list of 87 clergy through this method of discovery. (In 2011, Cardinal O’Malley made public the release of a list of offending clergy in Boston, their names, 159 of them.) Emotionally, the audience is invited to identify with the journalists. The targets of their research tend to be seen as villains, especially when the verification is clinched, the ‘Gotcha’ moments.

In the film, there are many sequences where the journalists make contact with lawyers handling victims cases, knowing that there was a great deal of confidentiality, but continually checking with them as more information became available. It is one of the Catholic lawyers who had been defending the Church’s silence who is finally overwhelmed by what has been uncovered and, emotionally reluctant, does indicate the truth about the list of abusive priests.

One of the experts over many decades is the former priest, Richard Sipe, who has written extensively on these issues. His book becomes one of the sources for information and for the journalists to try to understand the mentality of the abusers, issues of infantile sexuality, sexual orientation, issues of clerical celibacy. He becomes a character in the film, voiced by actor Richard Jenkins, in a number of phone interviews.

Cardinal Law was transferred to Rome at the end of 2002. The film also lists a number of places and countries where abuse has taken place. In 2002, the American Catholic Bishops Conference affirmed a policy of zero tolerance in abuse cases.


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