Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse and Its Cover-up: A Review of “Spotlight”

“When you’re a poor kid from a poor family and a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?”

That’s the trap door that thousands of children—young boys mostly, but plenty of girls, too—fell down through over only-God-knows-how-many years, centuries, even, of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, a particular historical epoch of which has been captured so stirringly in the movie Spotlight, currently in theaters.

The question posed above comes from one of the priest’s victims who operates a survivor’s support network that has long been mostly ignored by the media.

The movie follows an investigative journalism team for the Boston Globe that in 2002 pursues an appalling story of widespread sexual abuse by Boston-area priests. The case ultimately spans many years and many priests (some 250), who rather than facing criminal charges and defrocking, were simply and systematically moved to another parish or else placed on long-term “sick leave” until the diocese considered it “safe” to move them again.

Sadly, the Boston diocese was hardly alone in these actions, a fact made clear at film’s end, when a long list of dioceses across the nation where sexual abuse and cover-up has occurred scrolled darkly across the screen.

Like all good exposes, the Spotlight story gets peeled slowly, revealing itself layer by layer as a team of determined reporters keeps researching documents, interviewing subjects, and pursuing one lead to the next in a textbook case of how good journalism gets done.

The fact that the movie script is true just about down to its last details (much to the relief of the real-life journalists) simply adds power to the narrative drive of the story, even though it has been criticized in some movie-making quarters for not taking more liberties in order to increase dramatic tension.

An example: though most of the journalists had Catholic religious upbringings, none of them were any longer practicing. Nor had any been victimized by clergy. However much trumping up such factors may have added to the drama, we should be thankful to director Tom McCarthy for sticking to the facts alone, in which there is drama by the bushel.



Indeed, McCarthy may be the first director in history to make gazing at an Excel spreadsheet the cause of moviegoers’ hairs standing on end. The pivotal moment reveals to reporters in simple dramatic detail the startlingly long list of priests’ names that speak to the unspeakable quantity of horrors they visited upon innocent children.

There is tremendous dramatic tension, too, between the individual stories of each and every victim and the larger institutional story of cover-ups at the highest level of the church.

From the beginning, the investigative team must balance the desire to let the individual tragedy of each woebegon victim be shouted out to the world, their priest perpetrator exposed, with the need to keep the story under wraps while pursuing the far larger saga that would reveal the pervasive systemic cancer at the heart of the institution.

Given the scope of the abuse and the willful ignoring of it by the church, it would have changed little to prematurely reveal an individual priest perp. The church could have simply acknowledged and branded him as a renegade evildoer, banishing him and offering desultory mea culpas before going back to business as usual, that business being to protect the church’s behind at all costs.

“We need to focus on the institution. From the top down,” says the paper’s new editor, just in from Miami, who just happens to be Jewish and none too cowed by the vaunted institutional power the church holds in largely Catholic Boston.

Just another individual priest caught with his hands down a boy’s pants or up a girl’s dress? That would not do. There had to be bigger fish to fry, the editor knew, or the story would create but a brief stir before ultimately being buried in five inches on page B-11, with life (and the rape of children) going on as ever.


Pursuing the story to its end, however, was fraught with roadblocks, the largest and most fortified of those being the church’s long and entrenched history as a Boston powerbroker, social icon, community resource and spiritual haven for a 2,000-year-old tradition. And when that church is threatened, what most arises in response is its will to power and desperate grasping for survival, personified in wink-wink, go-along-to-get-along fraternal relations between its small army of lawyers and all those who might be in position to do it harm.

We’ve got two stories here,” says the investigative team editor to one of the reporters.  “A story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”

Those lawyers had managed for years to keep abusive priests and their knowing superiors almost completely out of the papers by negotiating private, sealed settlements with the few victims who had summoned the gumption and fearlessness to step forward. Through a legal plot twist, however, it turns out that some records are unsealed after all—or are supposed to be.

This sets up the following, almost surreal exchange between a reporter and a victim’s attorney:

Reporter: “So I can just walk into that courthouse right now and get those documents?”

Attorney: “No, you cannot. Because the documents are not there.”

Reporter: “But you just said they’re public.”

Attorney: “I know I did. But this is Boston. And the church does not want them to be found. So…they are not there.”

Reporter: “So you’re telling me the Catholic Church can remove legal documents from that courthouse…”

Attorney: “Look, I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced. Check the docket. You’ll see.”


Like so many of the church’s otherwise well-intentioned defenders in this sordid spectacle, its attorneys are upstanding pillars of the community. “This is the church,” says one to the team’s editor as they both attend a church charity function. “Look around. It’s done a lot of good for the city.”

Later, the editor confronts the same attorney with an avalanche of further damning facts, at which the latter spits out, emphatically, desperately, “I was doing my job!”

“You and everyone else,” the editor mutters in return. One can hear the ghosts of Adolf Eichmann and all the other educated, Mozart-listening German officers only doing the jobs that their fuhrer required of them.


Among its many virtues and challenges, Spotlight addresses the conundrum of the individual versus the collective. The church’s logic is clear: it does a lot of good for people and society, performing many admirable works, answering deep spiritual needs, so its occasional violation of individuals must not only be understood and accepted by society, but also swept under the rug, lest it harm people’s faith in the church and thus lead to its demise.

This is the cold logic of the institution devoted primarily to its perpetuation rather than to the individual souls of which it is the purported shepherd. But it doesn’t wash.

It can’t wash in any version of Christianity that adheres to the morals, ethics and heart of its namesake.

“As you have done to the least of these…” said Jesus. “Not a sparrow falls…”

Christianity, probably among all religions, is most devoted to the salvation of every individual soul. Buddhism and Hinduism are ultimately drained of the personal, Islam is top-heavy with the individual’s cowering before God and his countless edicts, but Christianity posits the uniqueness and eternal value of individual beings, and carefully proscribes the regard and identity they hold in the eyes of God. And the tradition’s central myth has God sending and sacrificing his only son to earth in order to fully experience and identify with his flock.

So: given the empathy engendered by God’s sacrifice, the religion grown under his son’s name is to rob individual children of their innocence and, in many cases, their emotional health and even lives, in order to sustain the life of the institution?

Not in any book or sermon ever offered up on Christianity’s behalf.

The fact that the church fought so hard for so long, employing cunning and craftiness and no small amount of their devotees’ money to hire the high-priced legal teams that would do its bidding of cover-up and concealment, stands as a damning fact it has been facing with rare openness during the pontificate of Pope Francis. That spirit of humility, and at least verbal commitment to future zero tolerance and transparency, is perhaps an encouraging sign. We shall see.



And it should perhaps be encouraging for the church too, that having inflicted such grievous, soul-robbing damage on its flocks, many of whom have long since fled, it yet retains a mysterious grip on millions of people worldwide. From the ashes of so much destructive fire, Pope Francis has a seemingly unparalleled power to reset the table, restart the conversation, and perhaps reignite, yet again, the hearts of followers who hunger still for the succor and nourishment that a spiritual community of deep tradition and ritual can provide.

That is mysterious and perhaps irrational and naive on the part of its adherents, but here the church still is, harboring some latent majesty that manages to rise—albeit sometimes barely—above an often dismal history.

One can only hope this is the kind of movie that would not need to be made in years hence. “Nothing to see here, move it along,” goes the old line from the policeman keeping the citizenry’s eyes averted from what is actually plenty to see, in often gruesome but oddly compelling detail.

Do we dare wish that at some point in humankind’s less fallen and less repressed future, there really won’t be anything to see—or to cover up—in people’s most cherished and trusting interactions with their spiritual mentors and homes?



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5 comments to Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse and Its Cover-up: A Review of “Spotlight”

  • Gerry Ausiello  says:

    Our local diocese has been hard-hit by this abuse over the years, especially in the pocketbook! I don’t believe there is any money flowing from the Vatican to assist with the huge sums-it only flows one way! The bishops who covered this up are criminals, along with the pedophiles.

  • mary  says:

    Great review! You should send this into New York Times.
    I just saw the movie last night and you are spot on. I totally agree that it made it much more compelling by NOT exaggerating. The truth here is far more powerful than any drama they could make up.
    Today I cannot stop thinking about the movie. How about that one priest that actually thought it was no problem to molest a boy as long as he himself did not get pleasure.” Sure, I molested but it was ok because I did not enjoy it”. whoa, Where is the moral compass?
    But my favorite line in the whole movie was when the very busy good lawyer had finally made the documents public property but it would be another few months until anyone could access them. The investigative reporter found his way to a judge and said ” I have a court order to pick up these documents now” and the judge said, ” These are very sensitive documents, how do we know you have the moral integrity to do the right thing with these letters and documents?” and the investigative reporter said, ” how do we know the city clerk(or whoever was withholding them) has the moral authority to withhold these from the public?”.
    By following the steps of our legal system, the documents had inadvertently become public property, not Catholic property and thus were available to splash the front page of the Sunday Boston Globe inviting thousands of other victims who called in that day.
    Thanks for sharing. I needed to discuss it!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Gerry, no compulsion to answer here, but I’ll ask in any case: Were you an observant Catholic when all this came to light? If so, did you stay? If you did, did you consider leaving at any time? What was finally most influential to get you to stay or leave? Sorry to play the prying reporter but people’s affiliation over time with their church is endlessly fascinating, each a spiritual biography unto itself!

    Mary, you can discuss, dig around, sound off, pop off & let off steam here anytime you please; that’s just one of Traversing’s reasons for being! :-) I felt the same way last night after coming home from the movie with plans to write about it but feeling a bit too shell-shocked to quite collect my thoughts. The scene you describe was especially harrowing, because this priest didn’t appear to be overtly mentally ill; merely vacant & devoid of some critical human feeling. The real reporter said it happened exactly that way, with only one detail different: he let her into the living room to have that conversation rather than at the front door!

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    I grew up Catholic and have now been in ‘recovery’ for over 40 years. I was blithely unaware of any sexual abuse going on and never had anyone I knew personally who claimed to have been victimized. But there was the running joke about the priest taking the altar boys out back for some ‘special dispensation’. We just thought we were being funny. The denial of sexuality is the great shadow of the church in this era. Scofflaws may say this is an improvement over the genocide and wholesale killing in Christ’s name wrought over the centuries. I think Pope Francis is a good guy, but the atrocities to answer for waft up to heaven in a billowing incense cloud filled with pain and suffering.


    I left the church at 19 and never looked back… so much about guilt trips instead of just doing good works. ahhhh ideology. And did you know that if you ate meat on Friday and died without repenting you’d go to HELL for all eternity…… a long time. BUT they changed the rules and then it was ok to burger down on Friday. Poor fallen suckers who hit In -N- Out before the rule change. Seriously, I was an altar boy for 8 years in Spokane, Wa. Did my time for 12 yrs in parochial school and don’t think I came out any the worse for wear. The main priests both in grade school and high school were fantastic role models, strict disciplinarians, and instilled the work hard ethic in all of us. They were also kind. It’s just too bad that wasn’t the case for so many young men and women who’ve been victimized. The church’s cover up is a huge black mark to go along with a few others throughout history. I’m anxious to see the movie and thank you for your thoughts.
    Be well and see you first of feb.

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