Saturday, November 28, 2015

In Theaters Now: Spotlight (2015)

There is usually something exciting about seeing your hometown mentioned on TV or in a movie. Usually.

In the end credits of "Spotlight," a film about The Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, my home town of Santa Rosa is listed among hundreds of places documented with incidents of pedophilia. So, no… Not so exciting.

Of course, I knew about this. I was raised a Protestant, but I know a number of people from Santa Rosa who were young and a part of Catholic churches throughout Sonoma County when these events were occurring. I know some people who made peace with what happened and who are still part of the Catholic Church, and others who no longer go to church. The reason some give for leaving the church is the abuse in the church and the way the church dealt (or didn’t deal) with that abuse.

The film "Spotlight" deals with this difficult subject well. Yes, there are uncomfortable, graphic conversations of incidents of abuse of children by priests. But, thankfully, we are spared dramatic reenactments of such events. The reporters working on the story are not portrayed as paragons of virtue, but simply men and women doing their jobs, who realize their work has great moral consequence.

Sadly, many members of the clergy in the film fail to realize the moral consequence of their actions. We see a  Globe reporter (Rachel McAdams) interview a priest who seems mentally and emotionally unstable. He insists that though he did “molest” children, he didn’t “rape” them. He finds a great distinction here and seems to wish to be credited for making it. We hear the story of a boy who, after his father committed suicide, was taken out for ice cream by his parish priest. The ice cream melted while the boy was abused. A man tells the story of a priest being the first person who acknowledged the boy was gay -- and who promptly proposed acting on impulses that would make him “more comfortable with his body”.

As is mentioned a number of times in the film, priests “were God” to these kids. So when the priests victimized these children, they not only abused them physically but, in most cases, destroyed the children's religious faith as well.

It is hard to decide if the actions of these priests are more or less reprehensible than the church bureaucracy that covered up this abuse. A scene in a police station early in the film shows a priest brought in for abusing children. A person of authority in the church patches things up. The parents of the children will be paid off, and no record will be made of the crime. The clergymen ride off in their chauffeured town car.

The priests who committed the abuse could, at least, plead mental illness as a defense. Those who paid off victims of the crimes and shuffled abusing priests from one parish to the next were acting with cool calculation, with motives of pride and avarice. As someone in the film states, just as it takes village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child.

All the ugliness and sin point even more clearly to our need for a savior. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

We don’t see much inside the walls of a church in the film. We hear a priest preaching, making a trite comment about how the World Wide Web might provide knowledge, but the church is still needed to provide faith (most of the film is set in 2001). We hear a children’s choir singing a carol (It’s a Christmas film!). The worth of the church is only mentioned in vague references of “the good it does” and the comfort it brings to the old folks.

For me, this scandal does not shake my faith. I learn from Scripture the power of evil and the sin that dwells in every human heart. I know that spiritual leaders should be called to a higher standard (Paul in 1 Timothy 3 says overseers should be above reproach, temperate and self-controlled). I know that Jesus taught in Matthew 18:6 that if anyone should cause a child to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone tied about the neck and be thrown into the sea than face the judgment God would be handing out. But the film accurately portrays laypeople who feel the scandal robbed them of the option of worshiping in the church. (Mark Ruffalo’s reporter makes an emotional statement to this effect.)

Throughout the film, churches provide the architectural background for scenes. But though I very much recommend the film, the Movie Church of  "Spotlight" receives the minimum rating of One Steeple.


  1. Nice review of this film. We saw it a week ago. and I can add nothing.

  2. I think your review was "worth" quite a bit; fair, like I think the film was trying to be. Hard to tell this kind of story w/o making the "good guys" too good or the "bad guys" too demonic. Everyone was a human being; everyone was flawed.