Michael Keaton, Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in 'Spotlight.' Photo by Kerry Hayes, Open Road Films.

'Spotlight' movie explores journalists' Catholic abuse coverage, loss of faith (COMMENTARY)

The cast of "Spotlight." Photo courtesy of Open Road Films

The cast of "Spotlight." Photo courtesy of Open Road Films

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(RNS) Covering religion in the news media is not for the faint of heart. People of faith accuse writers of anti-religious bias, while nonbelievers allege excessive sympathy for religious subjects. Every story is controversial. Every story necessarily involves something many people hold to be sacred.

Yet it is frequently in the public interest for nonsectarian media to cover religion news vigorously. The Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic child sexual abuse scandal in that city was a shining example. Its coverage won the paper accolades, led to the exposure of abuse elsewhere, and is now the subject of a major motion picture. “Spotlight” opens nationwide Friday (Nov. 20).

The movie follows three reporters and three editors who pursued the story in 2001 and 2002. Sensing there was more to the story than a few abusive priests facing criminal charges, a new editor-in-chief assigned the Spotlight investigative team to dig deeper, even at the risk of upending the Catholic power structure in Boston.

READ: ‘Spotlight’ movie on newspaper’s expose of Catholic child sex abuse a ‘masterpiece’

The journalists interviewed victims, lawyers, and other sources and ultimately uncovered a systemic failure in the Catholic hierarchy to acknowledge and responsibly deal with scores of priests who sexually abused hundreds of victims.

Even as the number of known abusers grew from a few to nearly 100, the reporters, their editors, and the Boston Archdiocese knew that the most damning and sickening story was the practice of moving problem priests from parish to parish -- guaranteeing that more children would be preyed upon.

I moved to Boston the week Cardinal Bernard Law resigned. My flight landed at Logan Airport in the pitch black of a late December afternoon in 2002. Having spent my life among Methodists in Florida and Baptists in Oklahoma, I knew little of Catholicism and its cultural strength in Northeastern cities.

READ: Pope Francis moves to hold bishops accountable in sex abuse crisis

But as I read those chilling Globe reports, I sensed that the darkness and an unusually cold winter were apt metaphors for the heartbreak and pain the scandal caused the city, the archdiocese, and most especially and enduringly, the victims.

The film poignantly depicts the story’s effect on the Spotlight team. Each member was a lapsed Catholic, and each grappled with the emotional toll of such a weighty story. In one scene, a reporter confides to his colleague that he stopped going to church “for the usual reasons,” but always suspected he might go back one day -- until he knew the extent of the abuse and cover-up.

A major theme of the movie is how various community institutions, perhaps unwittingly, allowed the scandal to fester and grow. The archdiocese very effectively settled cases quietly, keeping victims’ families and accused priests out of the press and out of criminal and civil courts.

READ: False narratives of Christian leaders caught in abuse

A lawyer for victims tells a reporter, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” The dramatic line makes for good cinema, but it may not be true.

Uncritical deference to the church caused many in Boston to turn a blind eye. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who has written a book on clergy sex abuse, laments “the damage done when we genuflect too readily before society’s temples” and “the danger of faith that’s truly blind.”

But the implication that anyone sympathetic to religion is somehow complicit in sex crimes against children is overwrought.

Though “Spotlight” clearly and rightly celebrates the Globe’s heroic journalism, it also acknowledges the paper’s past mistakes. On at least two occasions, a victim-advocate and a lawyer sent the paper extensive documentation of accusations, only to see the story buried.

READ: ‘God weeps,’ says Pope Francis, calling for accountability on sex abuse crimes

Globe editor Walter Robinson, who had been part of the staff that years earlier missed the larger story of the church's role in the scandal, directed the Spotlight team’s reporting. He insisted on extensively establishing the scope of the scandal and the archbishop’s malfeasance before publishing the story.

Robinson found redemption. So did the Boston Globe.

Michael Keaton, Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in 'Spotlight.' Photo by Kerry Hayes, Open Road Films.

Michael Keaton, Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in 'Spotlight.' Photo by Kerry Hayes, Open Road Films.

As the community dealt with the fallout of the scandal, I was a theology student at Boston University. Being among liberal Protestant denominations that ordained women, I wondered what difference it would have made if there had been women in prominent positions in the hierarchy. Might they have taken these sins and crimes more seriously?

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

The modern world poses so many potential challenges to religion: science, pluralism, sexual equality. So many things turn people away. Any of these alone can be a deal breaker. The clergy sex abuse scandal became, for many, insurmountable.

“Spotlight” ends without resolving or even exploring pertinent questions about whether Catholics’ faith in their church can ever be restored. Yet in spite of grave institutional evils, Catholic faith has persisted across the centuries. If a journalist could unlock that mystery, it would be a story worth telling.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University.)



  1. But said priests walked with the Lord. How then could they be guilty of such heinous crimes? The answer: they did never did walk with the Lord as there is no Lord.

  2. @Jacob Lupfer,

    Thanks for the excellent commentary. The depredations committed by the church are incalculable.

    “Catholic faith has persisted…If a journalist could unlock that mystery..”

    Faith is no mystery.
    Faith is an insidious, transparent bargain:
    “Believe this and you’ll get a fancy deal after you are dead.”

    1. It makes a promise it can’t prove.
    2. It exacts a price from this life – the only life we know we have.
    3. It destroys logic and reason.
    4. It prevents healthy grieving of lost loved ones.
    5. It weakens the value of this life by promising another one later.
    6. It subverts humanity for its own ends – like a virus.
    7. It grants blind power to clergy who wield its dishonest doctrines.

    There may be a life after death and, if so, it is true for everyone – not just the faithful. Like gravity.
    Who could dare to truly claim otherwise?

  3. Lupfer’s observations on this film are worthy of a jr high school journalism award. Such incisiveness !

    Poly-sci at Georgetown ? Is it’s reference from the original, or an updated Book of Acts ?

    ” Catholic faith has persisted across the centuries. ” according to Lupfer.

    Faith is a mind-prison to which children are condemned to do penance for their parent’s sins.

    Faith is a brainwashed illusion inculcated into the very young and impressionable.

    It’s persistence over the centuries manifests the most horrific condemnable act ever inflicted upon mankind by the perversion known as the “Holy” man.

    Politics is the acquisition and exercise of power.

    Religion is the acquisition and exercise of power.

    Two sides of the same coin….

  4. Sir, you are unfortunately very mistaken if you believe the Protestant churches do not have widespread cases of abuse by clergy, cover-ups, sexual activity with both boys and girls, by both male and female clergy. Do your work as a journalist and follow up with reports from the non-Catholic churches as well. An excellent professional consultant and resource: Dr. Gary Schoener. Google him, or contact him through Walk-in Clinic of Minneapolis.

  5. The Catholic Church eternally exists because it is the Faith God gave to the world, and its existence does not rest on the sins of individual, or institutional, matters.
    The Deposit of Faith is untouched by this scandal, just the image of the Church is damaged. Wise people can distnquish the difference.

  6. “the Catholic faith has persisted across centuries”. Not really, it declines and almost disappears where it has been planted the longest. Europe is gone, even Ireland, with signs of decline in Poland. Euro-American Catholics are abandoning the Catholic church. Youth in the USA are abandoning the church. Only the whipped-up abortion issue keeps some people fanatically Catholic. And that’s a weak, cultish base that will continue to drive out others.

  7. The catholic church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is badly governed?

  8. Wow! I’m just blown away by the sophistication of this debate! All of you – get real lives – go outside and breath some fresh air!

  9. What fresh air? Said air will always be filled with the stench of such debauchery!!

  10. We hope everyone will see the “Spotlight” movie. Disturbingly these crimes and cover ups within the Catholic church continue to this day.
    Let’s hope that anyone who has been harmed will have the courage to come forward. Silence only hurts. By speaking up there is a chance
    for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others

    Judy Jones, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) 636-433-2511. [email protected],

  11. We already know the story. See the movie as you would see any Oscar contender. It will no further damage the Catholic Church, just like the predictions of more ant-semitism arising from the “Passion of the Christ” never happened.

  12. Malcolm, who made you the boss of what any of us do? Go hand jive yourself again.

  13. Jacob, thank you for your thoughtful and well balanced commentary.

    My hope is that many Catholics (as well as non Catholics) take the time to see this movie, the acting is supurb and yes, certainly the subject matter is heavy, but a subject we as a society must learn, can no longer be talked about in hushed tones or whispers. For that very reasoning is what allowed the sexual abuse of children to flourish. I think it important that people see what happens when powerful institutions choose to protect its own instead of the people and children, these men, made a life long commitment to serve.
    Our children must NEVER be fodder for some “greater good” and a healthy institution cannot thrive in secrecy, and denial.

    I too am a survivor of clergy abuse as a child, my younger brother too. It is a life long sentence and healing is a continual process. Since my disclose I do not feel at all welcome by my church, and have seen far too many examples that tells me not enough has…

  14. ……and neither did the moon landing, or the Kennedy assassination. Mums the word, pal.

  15. What do you care if you feel unwelcome? You are there to worship God and ignore the ignorance of those around you. You told the truth and exposed the smoke of Satan within God’s House. Hold your head high and think of the boys you have saved from your tragic experience.

  16. We have recent evidence for the moon landing. For the resurrection, nada. Nothing. Zero. Just a story book that conflicts within its own lines.

  17. Why does a god need worship anyway? And why can’t your god just crush satan right now?

    No more delays. Stand and deliver. Or stop the god fairy tales.

  18. The answer is that they did not follow the Lord, because they didn’t want to, not that the Lord did not exist. That was their choice and exercise of free will.

  19. “Spotlight” shows how difficult it is to get the truth out of the Catholic church. A team of Boston journalists worked tirelessly to find out that the Catholic church knowingly was running a massive organized childrape crime syndicate in Boston and around the world back in a time when the Catholic had a powerful influence. It also shows how Catholic followers tried to help the church get away with it.

    This is a movie about organized crime, featuring the Catholic church, where the crime is childrape, and in BRUTAL defiance of Jesus in Matt 18:6-14, where Jesus said childrape was unforgivable.

    This movie shows how the Catholic church exhibited the same “code of silence” that the mafia has, without the honor, as they were protecting at least 249 “confessed” pedo-priests in Boston.

    That’s a whipping 16% (249 out of 1500). For “God”.

  20. It’s not just the Catholics. In Australia, oyal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has uncovered and documented sexual abuse of children in institutions of all kind, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Salvation Army and secular institutions.

    This problem is far more widespread than we might like to think.

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