Updated February 29, 2016: It won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars – but I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t seen the critically acclaimed film Spotlight yet. In a summer dominated by the return of Star Wars, who wants to watch a movie about Boston journalists exposing the Catholic Church for decades of child abuse and cover ups?
After its Oscars success, I hope many more people will see it – because as the film’s final moments make clear, Spotlight is not just about historic wrongs in one US city. It’s based on the true stories of too many people, in too many countries, including my home town of Newcastle, north of Sydney, Australia.
Australia’s current Royal Commission into institutional child abuse was set up after years of dogged work by survivors, supporters and journalists to uncover abuse across many institutions but particularly the Catholic Church. Like Boston, Australian towns where the Catholic church is dominant, such as Newcastle, Wollongong and Ballarat, have been badly affected.
When I went to see Spotlight in a Newcastle cinema on a Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t surprised by who else was in the audience: I recognised survivors, families and supporters of victims, and Catholic community members, including a number of priests.
But even as a researcher who’s attended and written about the Catholic Church at the Royal Commission and the NSW Special Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Spotlight’s finale came as a shock.
Just before the final credits roll, the filmmakers list dozens of other American cities affected by clerical abuse, which have all been tracked by the website Bishop Accountability. That US list is followed by towns and cities worldwide. The names go on and on, over several screens: from Auckland, Beunos Aires and Cape Town, to Manchester to Manila and beyond.
Australia features prominently: Adelaide, Ballarat, Canberra – and then people around me gasped, as we saw Newcastle on the list. Somehow seeing our small city on the big screen bought home the reality of this crisis.
Clerical sexual abuse is not a minor issue on the periphery of social maladjustment. It’s a major crisis of institutional abuse of power that has affected millions of people across the globe.
The story behind the film (warning: spoilers ahead)
Spotlight shows how, in 2002, a group of journalists at The Boston Globe revealed how hundreds of children had been abused by Catholic priests in the Boston area. It was the first major newspaper reporting on clerical abuse in the US. It shocked the nation, indeed the world, and bought to public attention the protection of abusers by senior clerics and the silencing of victims and their families by the church and its lawyers.
But all that may not have happened at all without the arrival of a new editor from out of town, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber).
Baron read a small article on a Catholic priest who had been abusing children but allowed by Boston’s Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law to keep working with children in parishes and schools.
Baron directed the Spotlight team to investigate what Cardinal Law knew, and how many priests and victims were involved. Despite missing documents, recalcitrant church lawyers and a deafening silence from the staunchly Catholic Boston community, the Spotlight team eventually found about 200 priests had abused children in the Boston Archdiocese alone. (For more, read the reporters' story behind their investigation.)
Even worse, they found evidence of a church hierarchy systematically moving pedophile priests between parishes and schools, setting up undisclosed “treatment centres” for them in suburban streets, and paying victims paltry amounts of compensation and binding them to silence.
The true heroes
While many critics have hailed Spotlight as a great journalism movie, in the pantheon of All the President’s Men, the journalists are not the real heroes of this story.
As the film reveals, The Boston Globe and another local newspaper both ran stories back in 1993 about a lawyer saying he had found 20 priests in the archdiocese who had been accused of misconduct. But as the Globe’s reporters have conceded:
We published this story and we buried it.
Other people’s attempts to get the church investigated – led by abuse survivor Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff), representing the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a lawyer for victims Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) – were ignored for years.
Why did this happen? The answer to that lies in the dominance of the Catholic Church in the Boston area and the ways in which institutions create forms of social reality. Most of the city’s journalists were raised as Catholic; that made them insiders who were too close to see the story all around them.
It took two outsiders – new editor Baron, who was from out of town and Jewish, and Garabedian, an Armenian – to see the seriousness of the issue.
Compare that with our own journalists, particularly the award-winning Joanne McCarthy, who spent years uncovering Catholic clerical sexual abuse in the Newcastle-Maitland diocese and who was raised Catholic but has become an atheist. Her outsider status allowed her to be uncompromising in what she was uncovering.
We can also see this in operation in Australia’s Royal Commission, which is completely independent of any of the offending institutions. It is probably very important that the Chair of the Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClellan, was not raised in a religious family and attended a public school.
The true heroes in Boston, Newcastle and beyond are the victims and survivors, their families and supporters. They are the ones who suffered the abuse and its aftermath, whose stories were disbelieved and discredited.
They were often treated abysmally by the church, and stigmatised as troublemakers. They are the ones who have borne the psychological, social and financial consequences of major trauma, yet who have continued to raise this issue until it is heard. The Royal Commission is Australia’s chance to right this terrible wrong.
‘It takes a village to abuse a child’
Within the first two months after the original Spotlight investigation was published in 2002, another 300 victims from Boston came forward. Since the film’s release, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest and others have reported more calls for help, with some people mentioning the film in their call.
The same thing is happening in Australia right now. So many people have come forward that the Royal Commission has nearly exhausted the time it set aside for private hearings. New cases continue to be reported, where principals, teachers and others haven’t followed the procedures that could have stopped an abuser.
But we also know that institutions are not where the majority of child abuse occurs. To quote a line from Spotlight:
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.
Protecting children from sexual abuse by adults involves the whole community. Evidence from many inquiries shows that – as happened in Boston – many people have been bystanders to these crimes and remained silent.
This raises challenging moral issues for us as we come to terms with how so many societies across the globe have failed to protect children from harm. How have so many people known but done nothing? What does this say about the ways in which we treat those who are situated as different and other?
If you can, see Spotlight, as it shows how one community came to be outraged and act on what happened to their children.
* If you or a child are in immediate danger, contact the police now. If you’re in Australia, you can tell your story and find many support services at the Royal Commission website, including Lifeline, which is free to call on 13 11 14.