‘Spotlight’ movie shows how Catholic leaders were more concerned with guarding the church’s reputation

The “Spotlight” cast: (L to R) Michael Keaton as editor Walter “Robby” Robinson; Liev Schreiber as editor Marty Baron; Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes; Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer; John Slattery as editor Ben Bradlee Jr.; and Brian d’Arcy as reporter Matt Carroll.
The “Spotlight” cast: (L to R) Michael Keaton as editor Walter “Robby” Robinson; Liev Schreiber as editor Marty Baron; Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes; Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer; John Slattery as editor Ben Bradlee Jr.; and Brian d’Arcy as reporter Matt Carroll.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was just a little kid.”

“It’s like God asking for help. ... How do you say no to God?”

“It really messed me up.”

All are the voices of victims in “Spotlight.” It’s a powerful new feature film that centers on the Boston Globe's 2001 investigation of the hundreds of Catholic priests in that city’s archdiocese who raped and abused children over decades.

And that was only half the horror.

As the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series showed, these crimes continued partly because they were covered up by those at the top: Predator priests were moved from parish to parish and victims’ families were given confidential cash settlements if they agreed to keep their cases out of the courts and away from the press.

“Sit down with the bishop and give them a little dough” is how one lawyer in the film describes the archdiocese’s brand of crisis management.

The great sin of the Catholic hierarchy in Boston: It cared more about the image of the church – an institution – than about the well-being of vulnerable, trusting children, many of whom were from low-income families.

“Spotlight” has already opened in selected cities. It arrives in Charlotte on Nov. 20.

What hit me hardest last week as I watched a screener of this Oscar-worthy film was that some of the bad guys clearly thought of themselves as such good guys. And once upon a time, maybe they were.

Take Cardinal Bernard Law, the then-archbishop in Boston, one of the most Catholic cities in America.

Early in the film, Law (played by Len Cariou) has his first face-to-face meeting with the new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). They start their chat with a mention of the cardinal’s own long-ago stint as a crusading journalist.

As a young pastor in the early 1960s, we hear, Law edited a small diocesan newspaper in Mississippi and forged a friendship with Medgar Evers, an African-American leader in the state who was gunned down by a white racist.

“We took a stand on civil rights,” Law tells Baron. “Our readership was not pleased. They saw me as a meddling outsider.”

Fast-forward to a later scene featuring Law: In this one, he’s surrounded by Boston’s Catholic elite at a gala for Catholic Charities, a group that serves society’s most vulnerable – the poor, refugees and, yes, children.

“We’re very proud of the work we do,” a Catholic Charities board member tells Baron, adding that he’s so glad the editor got to sit down with the cardinal – a leader he describes as “an extraordinary man.”

And yet, this same Cardinal Law presided over a cover-up that protected priests who used their own power and influence to rob young victims of their childhood and wound many of them for life.

The film also artfully demonstrates how this heartless manipulation of the system was greased by other seeming good guys – top lawyers and smooth PR professionals who worked with the archdiocese. In their hush-hush conversations on golf courses and at wine-and-cheese receptions, these power players made it clear that guarding the church’s reputation was their real religion.

“People need the church more than ever right now. You can feel it,” one of them tells Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) over drinks. “The cardinal, you know, he might not be perfect. But we can’t throw out all the good he’s doing for a few bad apples.”

Robinson’s response shows how savvy he’s become about both theology and power politics: “This is how it happens, isn’t it, Pete? Guy leans on a guy. And suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.”

The cardinal and those around him also resort to tribalism, even bigotry. Baron, who is pushing his paper’s investigative team to find out what Law knew and when he knew it, is dismissed by one lawyer as a careerist with an agenda to embarrass Catholic Boston. Not only that, the lawyer notes, Baron is “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball.”

Institution-worship is a temptation that’s hardly limited to churches. In “Spotlight,” the publisher of the Boston Globe is nervous about Baron’s request to sue the archdiocese to unseal records. He goes along, but points out to his new hire that 53 percent of the newspaper’s subscribers are Catholic.

Law hopes the newspaper will play ball, telling Baron during their chat that “I found this city flourishes when great institutions work together.”

Baron isn’t buying it, telling the cardinal that the newspaper needs to “stand alone” to do its job. But many at the Globe are initially defensive, saying they’ve already covered this story and playing down the testimonies of now-adult victims who strike them as conspiratorial flakes.

“You guys got to understand: This is big,” the organizer of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) tells a skeptical Spotlight team. “This is not just Boston. This is the whole country. It’s the whole world. And it goes right up to the Vatican.”

‘A thief of childhoods’

Sadly, he was right. Just before its credits roll, “Spotlight” fills four screens with a list of other cities in the U.S. and around the world where major abuse scandals were uncovered.

Raleigh and Charleston are listed, but Charlotte isn’t. It should have been. One website – – lists eight former priests in the Charlotte diocese in its database of publicly accused priests.

One of the most recent – and notorious is the Rev. Robert Yurgel. He was sentenced to nearly eight years in prison in 2009 after pleading guilty to a second-degree sex offense. A Franciscan priest who served in the 1990s at St. Matthew and Our Lady of Consolation parishes in Charlotte, Yurgel molested a teen-age altar boy who is now in his 20s and who confronted the priest at his sentencing hearing.

“You are a liar, a thief of childhoods and a child molester,” he told Yurgel after enduring years of nightmares, flashbacks and thoughts of suicide.

In 2010, the Diocese of Charlotte announced it would pay Yurgel’s victim $1 million to settle his lawsuit. The diocese also agreed to put aside $47,500 to pay for his counseling and medication.

In the last decade, 12 U.S. dioceses – including those in Milwaukee, San Diego and Minneapolis-St. Paul – have filed for bankruptcy after payouts to victims that sometimes totaled in the millions.

According to studies this year by the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), the U.S. Catholic Church has incurred nearly $4 billion in costs tied to the priest sex abuse scandal during the past 65 years. In addition, NCR reported, drops in membership and giving over the last 30 years have meant lost revenue of about $2.3 billion a year to the U.S. church.

As a Catholic and a religion reporter, I have also detected another more subtle cost: A tendency by many in our polarized country to see the Catholic Church in black-and-white terms.

Some Catholics insist on defending the church’s record, saying it’s getting picked on by critics who turn a blind eye to child sex abuse committed by those affiliated with other institutions and denominations.

On the other side are those quick to see all priests as suspect, offering no proof of any guilt and dismissing all this great majority of priests do in caring for their flocks.

‘God weeps’

It’s too early to say whether casting a spotlight on the wrongdoing will change things for good.

David Hains, a spokesman for the Charlotte Catholic diocese, argues that the Boston Globe’s great journalism did cause the church to go through a painful self-examination and alter its ways.

“We have made changes in the formation of our priests (in seminaries),” he said. “And everybody who works or volunteers in our parishes now undergo background checks and have to take sexual abuse awareness training.”

The name of the training: “Protecting God’s children.”

Pope Francis has spoken up, though many say his words have not yet led to enough action.

“God weeps,” the pope said during his recent visit to Philadelphia, where he met with some victims. “For me, sexual abuse of children – that cannot be maintained in secret and I commit to a careful oversight to ensure that youth are protected and that all responsible be held accountable.”

But some victims can’t forget how one of Francis’ predecessors “punished” Cardinal Law after the Boston Globe detailed his role in protecting many of the nearly 250 “bad apples” who abused more than 1,000 survivors – as many victims prefer to call themselves – in the Boston archdiocese.

Law was forced to resign in 2002 – the same year the Globe stories began to appear. But “he found a comfortable and influential second career at the Vatican,” according to a recent report from WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

The disgraced cleric kept his seat in the College of Cardinals.

And Pope John Paul II named Law archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore – the most magnificent of four papal basilicas in Rome.