How Will “Spotlight” Impact the Current Public Image of the Catholic Church?


How does one of the world’s most dominant religions attempt to reconcile its longstanding troubles when a new film continues to shed light on them? It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has had more than its share of criticisms, from its controversial stances on homosexuality and divorce to its treatment of women. Arguably, the Church’s most pressing concern continues to be its response to the highly publicized sex abuse scandal, initially brought to light by The Boston Globe in January 2002. This journalistic investigation is the subject of Spotlight (2015), the new film from Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) about the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of journalists that exposed the scandal and the Church’s controversial response. So how will the film impact public perceptions of the Church? In short, it probably won’t.

Though thorough in its coverage of the true story that nearly toppled an institution to which 1.2 billion people belong, the film offers nothing new to what’s already known—and that’s okay, because new information about the scandal or altering people’s feelings about religion is not McCarthy’s intention. Those who left the Church as a result of the scandal will likely continue to keep their distance. Those who remained faithful will continue to be. And those who lapsed but are considering a return will continue along their current course. Had the film uncovered additional misconduct, a whole new chapter to the much maligned saga would be opened, and Catholics would be faced with a new come-to-Jesus moment. Instead, it appears that McCarthy’s intentions are purely to capture this critical moment in time by dramatizing the discovery of the surprising scandal for the big screen—one that originated in the pages of The Boston Globe. With the intrepid Globe taking on the Catholic Church, this film is a story of “Goliath versus Goliath,” as McCarthy puts it. And for that reason, it’s a story worth telling.

In 2001, the Globe’s Spotlight division, a blue-chip team of four investigators led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), was tasked by the newspaper’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), to shift focus from its previous investigation to work exclusively on the Church scandal. The ensuing months-long investigation, which began with a single priest, exploded to proportions beyond anyone’s expectations. Moreover, it was suspected that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston (currently serving a post in Rome), was aware of the abuse and opted not to bring it to light. Instead, he choreographed a shift of suspected priests from one parish to another in hopes that the misconduct would be swept under the rug.

McCarthy takes a somewhat sterile approach to his filmmaking, leaving personal opinions out of the equation. There’s no agenda here in regards to how the public should feel about the scandal. Rather, the story is told in a matter-of-fact manner from the perspective of the Spotlight team, much the way it would be reported in a newspaper. By now, the public is largely familiar with this story and has no doubt already framed its opinions based on the details that have come to light. If anything, Spotlight will serve as a reminder to anyone who may have forgotten. But it’s doubtful that anyone has, and the beleaguered Catholic Church is potentially worse off for it.

According to a 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, an estimated one in 10 American Catholic adults has left the Church. More recently, The Guardian reported in September of this year that approximately 32 million Catholics have broken with the Church in recent decades. Although these figures don’t specify to what extent these decisions to leave were directly tied to the sex abuse scandal, it certainly didn’t help an institution that’s already heavily criticized for being disconnected from modern society.

Enter Pope Francis. Since the Pontiff’s election in 2013, the first non-European Pope in 1,272 years has been making tidal waves with his seemingly progressive words and actions, speaking out about climate change, pronouncing “Who am I to judge?” in regards to homosexuality and even referring to the gender-based pay gap as “pure scandal.” He’s viewed as a rock star among left-leaning Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and his heavily lauded recent visit to the United States is a clear indication. Most impressively, his messages of love, acceptance, and fairness are hitting the mark with lapsed Catholics who now feel they have a reason to return to the Church. Perhaps to those people, the story at the center of Spotlight represents the past (albeit the not-so-distant past), from which they have moved on. For all these reasons,Spotlight likely won’t alter the views of the faithful, nor will it interfere with the new vision Pope Francis has begun to establish.

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