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Tom McCarthy: ‘Spotlight is not an attack on the Catholic Church’

Spotlight director Tom McCarthy (AP)

The buzz around Spotlight started almost immediately after its release in America late last year. Critics hailed the film, which tells the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the cover-up of clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. Abuse survivors also applauded the movie and box office figures proved very decent.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the Catholic community largely welcomed it. Both Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the US bishops’ conference, used publicity generated by the film to highlight the work done by the American Church in the last decade to try to get to grips with this most devastating of scandals.

That Catholics in America praised Spotlight rather than protested against it suggests that the faithful across the globe may be finally coming to terms with the abuse crisis. The last 20 years or so have seen a stream of accusations and recriminations throughout the world. It seems now that almost all Catholics accept that the situation was badly mishandled by the hierarchy, and that it is not anti-Catholic to say so.

This theory will be put to the test when Spotlight, which stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, is released around the world in the coming weeks. It comes out in Britain on January 29 and I fully expect Catholics here to react similarly to their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.

The positive reception Spotlight has received is also due in no small part to its measured and thoughtful approach. It doesn’t seek to sensationalise its subject matter or demonise the Church. The action unfolds from the point of view of the Globe journalists (if “action” is not too grand a term for scenes involving the mundane rituals of a journalist’s trade: door knocks, phone calls and the painstaking scanning of paperwork). The abuse is described but never shown – and then only to a limited degree. The film gives enough information to shock and horrify, without ever becoming prurient or voyeuristic.

Church leaders and diocesan officials in Boston are rightly held to account and vexing issues surrounding celibacy and secrecy are raised, but Spotlight is not an angry attack on the Church. If anything, it’s an ode to investigative journalism and a critique of society at large, as director and co-writer Tom McCarthy confirms to me when we meet at a swanky London hotel just before Christmas.

“It’s a sensitive issue and part of our approach was to not sensationalise or be gratuitous,” he says. “It’s not just a question of a newspaper going after the Church but also a larger question of societal complicity and deference, in this case towards the Church, but also in general.

“What did people know and was it just the power of the Church stopping them from speaking out, or was there more to it? I hope this is a universal movie that transcends this particular case and speaks of other institutions where bad things are happening.”

McCarthy adds by way of example that the Globe itself is one of those other institutions scrutinised in the film. Spotlight asks why the paper didn’t cover the story sooner considering there was plenty of information available long before it actually appeared in the paper. He also points out that he and his co-writer, Josh Singer, sought to fully flesh out characters such as Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston who resigned in 2002 because of the scandal. McCarthy and Singer wanted to avoid presenting anyone as a cartoonish villain of the piece.

Noted American Catholic journalist Philip Lawler would disagree on this point. Although generally positive about Spotlight in an article for First Things, he took issue with the portrayal of Cardinal Law, calling it “particularly weak, conveying neither the strength of personality nor the tragic flaws of that unhappy prelate”. He also criticised the film’s premise that the Globe was David to the Church’s Goliath. There has also been criticism from Jack Dunn, the spokesman for Boston College, a school implicated in the scandal, who says he is unfairly represented on screen.

Of course, whenever a film attempts to re-enact real events there will always be inaccuracies and artistic licence taken, and while the issues raised by Lawler and Dunn may have a solid foundation, it seems to me that the holes to be picked in Spotlight from a Catholic perspective are minor.

McCarthy is an experienced actor, director and writer who appeared, by coincidence, as a journalist in the final series of The Wire.
In 2009 he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for the Pixar film Up. He was raised a Catholic and sought the counsel of his devout parents before he went ahead and made his movie. Although his father died before its completion, his parents’ reaction to the proposed project, and his mother’s subsequent appreciation of the finished film, helped him to identify what Spotlight offers a Catholic audience who may be feeling angered, betrayed and bewildered by the abuse crisis.

“My father was a wonderful man, father and Catholic and I wanted him to know why I was doing the film because I knew he’d read about it,” McCarthy tells me. “During the course of a conversation, which my mother joined, in a diner near their home in New Jersey, they started discussing the crisis. My interpretation was that was the first time they had really talked about it in depth and they had a very good marriage. I was fascinated because I was sensing my mother’s anger and frustration, and the sense that she was still working through it.”

When McCarthy’s mother did see Spotlight he says she was “greatly affected” by it and “had a tough time processing it”. “She was struggling, and in a great side note, and an example of a great priest, our local priest Fr Jack drove into New York to see it. He loved it and had a great conversation with her and talked her through it. It was something my dad would have done for her, but now he’s not around, a priest did it instead.”

Spotlight has just been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and McCarthy has also picked up a nomination for Best Director. Both would be worthy winners. The film’s release comes at a pertinent moment for the Church, with questions about freedom of the press swirling in the light of the new VatiLeaks trial, and people around the world hoping that the child abuse commission and tribunal set up by the Pope have a genuine and lasting impact.

Recently, there has been disquiet concerning Francis’s decisions to appoint Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno in Chile and choose Cardinal Godfried Danneels as one of his personal nominations for the family synod, as both men were previously accused of involvement in covering up abuse.

Since the journalists at The Boston Globe started asking tough questions of the Church, strides have undoubtedly been taken to deal with the abuse crisis. More than a decade on, the search for answers and solutions must continue.

This article first appeared in the January 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here