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Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight, a film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexually abusive clergy. Photo by Kerry Hayes

Abuse in the spotlight

Recent films cast a glaring light on the Catholic Church’s pedophile priests. They make the Vatican’s response seem too little, too late.

By Drew Halfnight

Mark Ruffalo is good at looking bothered. On and off camera, the twitchy American actor often wears an expression of distaste, like he just caught a whiff of sour milk.

As a Boston Globe reporter investigating child molesters in Spotlight, Ruffalo has plenty to work with. Lurking at the back of a church, observing a group of boys rehearsing Silent Night, trying to fathom how a man of God could prey on innocent children, he screws his face into a rictus of disgust. Eugh.

How to explain the special revulsion — and fascination — we feel when confronted with revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? Since the mass media began covering the topic in the 1980s, hundreds of books and dozens of films have helped keep popes on the hot seat. In response to public pressure, Pope Francis recently changed Vatican laws regarding sexual abuse, apologized to victims and struck a commission for the protection of minors. Yet each effort at reconciliation has been met by calls for deeper and more meaningful reform. For survivors, the Vatican’s tinkering with canon law and its platitudinous pledges are a case of too little, too late.

The most recent popular film to take on the church’s sins, Spotlight recounts the Globe’s breakthrough investigation of shockingly widespread sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese and cover-ups by bishops and politicians. At the movie’s premiere in Toronto last fall, critics and viewers swooned, predicting Oscar glory.

Spotlight is a good newspaper procedural with an urgent quality. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) captures the look and feel of the newsroom circa 2001, with its clipped three-word phone conversations, half-eaten lunches, cheap swivel chairs and dusty piles of dossiers. The writing is tight and bright, like good news copy, and the acting is what you would expect from the heavyweight ensemble cast led by a resurgent Michael Keaton as the editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative team.

For all its technical prowess, the success of the movie owes much to its subject matter — and I’m not referring to nostalgia for old-fashioned shoe-leather journalism. The best journalism movies, including All the President’s Men (1976) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), are about speaking truth to power. They illustrate that, in the words of American writer Finley Peter Dunne, a good newspaper should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Viewers of Spotlight will come face-to-face with priests who sexually abuse children, confront the power of the Holy See and feel they are participating in the triumph of good over evil.

As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane points out, one of the movie’s great virtues is what’s not there: no “creepy flashbacks of prowling priests” or “children in the vortex of peril.” Pedophile priests and their protectors in the Catholic bureaucracy exert power in the film by their absence. In a rare scene featuring the movie’s villain, Boston Archbishop Bernard Law — who dealt with abusers by shuffling them off to new parishes where they committed fresh offences — his Most Reverend Eminence’s ostentatious robes, giant pectoral cross and mammoth cufflinks hint at worlds of hypocrisy and corruption. (Two years after resigning in disgrace, Cardinal Law was appointed to a plum post in Rome.)

In leaving horrific scenes of molestation to the imagination, Spotlight bears comparison to Doubt (2008), which arose from writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s desire to tell the story of whistle-blowing nuns.

Like McCarthy, Shanley, a former altar boy who was tossed out for drinking sacramental wine, understands that clerical sexual abuse unfolds in the intimate context of a neighbourhood and a church. The movie is steeped in the sense of place, specifically Catholic Brooklyn in the 1960s. Doubt guides the audience into the closed world of a parochial school, touring its annexes (the garden, the rectory, the gymnasium), displaying its finery (the cruets, the censers), and parading its denizens in their cassocks and surplices. Destabilizing camerawork leaves viewers with a feeling of unease, even claustrophobia, in this alternate universe with its own symbols and logic, populated by powerful clergymen who remain frustratingly aloof.

Shanley said he wanted the film to evoke all the stereotypes of life in the Catholic church, then “bit by bit, explode them.” He succeeds, as we are denied any closure regarding Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn, who at first appears to be the caricature of the abusive priest. His antagonist, the prim, priggish Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), musters the courage to confront Flynn but is barely recognizable as the film’s heroine.

Both Spotlight and Doubt owe something to the 1992 Canadian film The Boys of St. Vincent. Based on sensational revelations of endemic sexual abuse at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s, N.L., this controversial National Film Board release still sets the visual standard for films exploring sexual abuse by clergy. Director John N. Smith opens the movie with shots of a forbidding church and uses dim corridors and basements to create a motif of light and dark. A scene in which hypocritical priests indulge in a decadent supper of pink beef and plump tomatoes is repeated in Doubt.

Critics of The Boys of St. Vincent tend to fixate on its extended takes of naked boys in the orphanage’s showers, which make the viewer feel complicit in the sexualization of minors. These scenes and others depicting brutal assaults force us to consider that if it takes a village to raise a child, then, as lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) says in Spotlight, “it takes a village to abuse one too.”

The big emotions that animate these films — anger, hurt, disgust — resonate with the depth of public outrage over the church’s decades-long betrayal. For many survivors, the Catholic Church’s recent efforts to address the problem do not measure up to the enormous hurt the institution has perpetrated. After all the attention the issue has garnered, the church still does not require bishops to report abuse allegations to police unless they are mandated to do so by local law. The Vatican also jealously guards private files on abusers and their victims. Pope Francis meets with survivors and speaks of healing and reconciliation, but until the church heeds the call for even deeper reform, clergy sexual abuse will remain an open wound.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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