By LISA FLUET
Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight (2015) recounts the Boston Globe’s early-2000s investigative reportage on the Boston archdiocesan hierarchy’s long history of routinized cover-ups of clerical sexual abuse of minors. The film has powerful narrative momentum. I want to talk about two moments that suggest a sort of counter-point to that momentum, working against its otherwise straightforward, even dogged movement towards the concluding, fittingly epiphanic, court-ordered revelation of archdiocese documents and the published “Spotlight” reports about specific priests that began, in historical fact, on January 6, 2002.
The first moment concerns one of the few accused priests actually depicted in the film: Ronald Paquin (Richard O’Rourke), who worked in parishes in both Methuen and Haverhill from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. As a result of numerous reports of abuse (according to the Globe’s subsequent coverage, which extends beyond the film’s scope), he was then put on various iterations of “sick leave” at different “treatment centers” and forms of “transitional housing” for accused abusive priests. At one of these “centers,” which proved decidedly lax in terms of counseling or regulation, Paquin occasionally continued his sexual involvement with one of his former victims, who visited him. He was eventually returned to service in 1998 as chaplain at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, before the Globe’s coverage drew attention to him. This approved employment, in the face of multiple cover-ups and financial settlements concerning past accusations, eventually served as part of the larger case against the archdiocese hierarchy, in the Spotlight team’s top-down approach to assessing responsibility within this system.
In the film, Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) meets Paquin in Malden, at his apartment door. At this point, he’s an innocuous-looking older man. He affably begins describing his past with boys in these parishes, in words matching Pfeiffer’s original Globe reportage fairly closely: “Sure, I fooled around. But I never raped anyone and I never felt gratified myself.” He believes he can argue for and justify such distinctions, as it turns out, because he was himself raped as a thirteen-year-old by a trusted priest. Paquin supplies this recollection with remarkable neutrality, as if personal experience of clerical sexual abuse as a child automatically makes one an expert, adult clerical navigator of the rhetorical nuances concerning the rules of what “counts” as legitimate victimization of minors. But this moment also thematically recalls an earlier one involving new, “outsider” Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), and Baron’s initial polite raising of the question of clerical sexual abuse to Law. Law sociably—and characteristically—deflects the question, but he offers Baron a parting gift, which he describes as “a cardinal’s guide to the city of Boston.” This turns out to be a copy of the catechism. Paquin’s response to Pfeiffer ironically reinforces the film’s sense (if not, necessarily, the sense of an average, lifelong Boston-and Mass.-based viewer like myself) that a purportedly objective, hair-splitting question-and-answer-based lesson in the behavioral rules and exacting terminology of sinfulness, even pertaining to the area of sexual abuse of children, is always near at hand. Just knock on any door in Boston, in other words, and you will soon find a well-intentioned stranger ready to explain the nuances to you.
As with some other lingering, jarring moments in Spotlight, I felt somewhat torn as a viewer. As a formerly-Catholic, now decades-long atheist “born and raised” in this area (and “born and raised” could be one of this otherwise compelling film’s most unfortunately-reiterated, tired sentiments), possibly the only appreciation I could ever express for Law, apart from the letter that, I admit, I was required to compose, as the fourth grader with the best penmanship in my class, welcoming him to the Boston Archdiocese after his replacement of Humberto Medeiros as Archbishop of Boston in 1984 (in fairness, I really don’t think I could predict what was coming)– the only appreciative thing I can say about Law, in terms of his catechism-city-guide gift in the film, would be that this is, in fact, a funny gesture. At least, it’s funny in the way that a decorously coded, unarticulated “go fuck yourself” tends to be funny. Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the Spotlight team, or its “player-coach,” as he more contentedly describes himself, terms the gift evidence that the Cardinal lacks “subtlety.” Yet the joke couldn’t be more on Robinson, here and for much of the film: subtlety could, arguably, be the defining trait that a high-ranking archdiocese official presiding over years of covered-up sexual abuse cases, priest-transfers, and undisclosed financial settlements possesses, and in abundance.
But notice also the tone of the catechism-gift-exchange. Baron’s distancing, usefully antisocial advocacy of the necessary, critical separation of the press from Boston’s other institutions exerting control over how the public is informed—like the Catholic church—establishes his defining opposition to Law’s suggestion that urban institutions like church and press should “work together.” Thus the Globe’s commitment to standing-alone receives the Cardinal’s analogously antisocial, coded “GFY” catechism response. Yet compelling quiet exchanges like this tend to be crowded out, in Spotlight, by unironic, painfully earnest instances of glad-handing, “born and raised,” glass-raising sociable folksiness, in which what Anthony Lane terms “pride of place, and the way in which it offers both an embrace and a choke hold” proves the definitive indicator of where this film wants to locate its own sense of the tragic.
It’s not enough, I suppose, to counter Lane’s observation with my own, mildly aggrieved grumbling at some of the “pride of place” moments from Spotlight. When, for example, Robinson and Pete Conley (Paul Guilfoyle), then of the board of Catholic Charities, meet in an (of course) dark bar for a post-working hours drink, where (of course) Conley and the bartender know each other by name, and they offer a toast “to Boston,” I distinctly recall mumbling to myself “Seriously? Who does that?” And yet, in spite of the fact that I draw upon knowledge from a considerable accumulation of hours spent in Massachusetts bars, and I know that I have never heard anyone toast Boston in one, nor have I done so myself, the problem here is not a failure of realism. After all, at some point in history, in some bar in Boston, it is certainly plausible that two old, white-collar, consciously-fighting-the-good-fight white guys have met, and wearily offered such a toast to the claims of geographic, community loyalty. For all I know, this could in fact be exactly what old men do in bars when women aren’t around. But Spotlight’s too often relies on the convenient geographic shorthand provided by a pervasive theme in film narratives situated in and around Boston from the last fifteen years or so. To echo Casey Affleck’s opening voiceover from Ben Affleck’s 2007 film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone, these films have made a kind of trope of the “it’s the things you don’t choose that make you who you are” source of human strengths and flaws, those “things” being specifically “your city, your neighborhood, your family” and, eventually, in this voiceover, the Catholic church, here depicted as both an unchosen circumstance for its believers, and as the only available source of protection against precisely those elements in city, neighborhood and family that exploit the vulnerabilities deriving from unchosen circumstances: “you are sheep among wolves; be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”
The voiceover—developed specifically for the film adaptation, and actually somewhat at odds, in its conclusions, with Lehane’s novel—conveniently summarizes a set of circumstances and a narrative device in evidence in, for example, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Lehane’s Mystic River (2003), Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010), David O. Russell’s The Fighter (2010), and (actually set north of Boston, in Lowell), Ann Biderman’s Showtime series Ray Donovan (2013-), as well as Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015). It is not necessarily the case that unchosen circumstances like city, neighborhood, family, and forms of religious belief close off all avenues to self-definition, all possibilities of transcendence of geography and community’s defining “embrace and choke hold,” for all the characters in these Boston-centric films. After all, occasionally one person breaks free in some of these films. The vast majority, however, cannot, and as Affleck’s voiceover indicates, unintentionally anticipating Lane’s assessment of Spotlight, the only remaining option for this considerable majority involves perversely transforming unchosen circumstances into sources of pride and evidence of accomplishment: “people here take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished.”
Reliance upon this narrative device creates certain difficulties—even beyond the obvious reality that, like bad accents and obligatory aerial views of Fenway Park, it has already been done so many times that it can veer towards self-parody. More importantly, however, “pride of place,” as onscreen-Boston’s quintessential narrative embrace and choke hold, tends to elbow out other, competing paradigms for conceptualizing the forms of knowledge and suffering attendant upon unchosen circumstances. Spotlight strikes a significantly odd note, once the investigative team begins to move towards fully assembling and comprehending the magnitude of evidence of the church hierarchy’s systemic betrayal, when the reporters themselves express their personal feelings of betrayal. Robinson discovers that his alma mater Boston College High School harbored a sexually abusive Jesuit, and he luckily avoided contact with him only because he happened to play a sport other than what the Jesuit coached. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) observes, in the film’s loudest moment, “They knew and they let it happen! To kids! Okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us.” Even Sacha Pfeiffer expresses sorrow at the prospect of not feeling able to attend church with her nana on Sundays anymore. I term these late revelations in the film odd in part because it’s difficult to muster sympathetic anger with reporters who feel betrayed as Catholics, and/or for having unknowingly come into proximity with clerical sexual abuse in their own pasts. After all, Spotlight does depict some actual victims of clerical sexual abuse in adulthood—Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), Peter Canellos (Doug Murray), Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton)—and their actual feelings of betrayal ought to trump the reporters’ hypothetical ones, particularly since, as Saviano suggests, victims like him have already been assembling the Globe’s story in support groups for years, even submitting their research to the Globe, and effectively doing the necessary work on a story that, as several characters in the film suggest, everyone already knows anyway.
Spotlight expects us to take the reporters’ feelings of betrayal seriously. We know, because we have already been so thoroughly coached in taking the concept of Bostonian pride of place seriously. Rezendes’ moment of angry histrionics suggests that even proximity to clerical sexual abuse ties people born in a certain place, and participating in a certain faith, together. Hypothetically, it “could have been any of us,” and he gestures towards the notion that this is a circumstance they all have in common with the victims. Well, not quite. As Saviano, Canellos, Crowley, and even Paquin attest, actual victimization in cases of clerical sexual abuse proves a “thing you don’t choose” that defines you as drastically isolated—it has very little to do with feeling a part of a community (hence the small numbers of visible, active members in support groups), and does not follow the “embrace and choke hold” pattern since its initiating betrayal involves an act that looks like an embrace, like acceptance, like love, but is in fact something quite different. The film’s concluding black screen running a simple list of cities with subsequent reportage on clerical sexual abuse attests to the systemic, global scope of the scandal, far beyond the particularities of any one urban region or its preciously-held forms of pride. But in its unembellished, in-your-face starkness, the concluding screen also seems more in alignment with the tone and rhetoric of the film’s actual victims, like Saviano, who will straightforwardly term the abuse he suffered “priests using the collar to rape kids,” whereas others speak of mitigating circumstances like the celibacy requirement and its attendant cultures of sexual secrecy, or of the compensatory, consolatory benefits of local churches weighed against the proverbial “few bad apples.”
This brings me, after a considerable detour, back to the second moment from Spotlight that I would want to juxtapose to Paquin’s revelations at his doorstep, if only to indicate an alternative to the film’s epiphanic momentum towards what is, in fact, the expert, detailed, meticulously-researched reporting of a series of old news stories—for 2016’s viewers, but notably for the victims depicted in the film, and lawyers Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) and even the dubious Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), who all know, yet cannot do what the Globe can eventually do. At the final meeting prior to the running of the first Spotlight report, after the unsealing of archdiocese documents revealing the Cardinal’s knowledge, the securing of victims’ testimony concerning seventy accused priests, and Robinson’s “deep background” confirmation from a friend and defense lawyer (Jamey Sheridan) who worked with the Church for a length of time, other members of the meeting take a moment to sound off on the defense lawyer’s protected position: Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) calls him a “scumbag,” and Rezendes calls him “a shill for the Church.” To this, Robinson replies that the Globe could, in fact, have begun its research and coverage much sooner. While the Spotlight team have been laboring under the belief that the scope of the scandal could only be fully grasped by investigative journalism in the early 2000s, in fact Robinson has been informed that MacLeish sent the Globe a substantial portion of the needed information years earlier, concerning twenty accused priests—and Robinson himself “buried the story in Metro,” with no follow-up. Robinson admits that he’d just started working the Metro desk at that time, and he doesn’t really remember consciously deciding to bury the story, but “yes, that was me” is the statement that the rest of the meeting hears.
The response to Robinson’s statement and admitting of responsibility over this earlier story uncannily echoes the earlier encounter between Pfeiffer and Ronald Paquin. In each case, the relentless momentum of pushing-forward and catching-up needed to accumulate the information and render a coherent, networked narrative out of a series of fragmented, older stories just stops abruptly, and we get an uncharacteristic moment of silence—in a film in which a lot of people have done a lot of talking. But both with Paquin earlier, and with Robinson at this point, an older man who looks trustworthy calmly makes a damning statement about himself, concerning his past performance in what he understands as his work in the world, and his listeners simply are stopped, in bewilderment, by the provenance of this statement. The subsequent accusatory-disbelieving headshakes (Rezendes), and embarrassed looks (Pfeiffer, Bradlee) also recall Pfeiffer’s response to Paquin. As Robinson’s account makes clear, he does not seem to have harbored any intentional, harmful motives for burying the story. That is, although Robinson aligns himself with the sociable, pride of place, Boston-toasting older male Catholics for much of the film, his religious and community backgrounds have not come into play in his own understanding of why he buried the story. Instead, again in an echo of Paquin earlier, burying the story proved an inevitable symptom of assuming his new working role, in this case in the Globe’s own system, and not a consciously malicious act or purposeful attempt at a cover-up.
At this point, Marty Baron deflates the meeting’s tension with an assertion about the nature of working within a system like the Globe that both exonerates Robinson (to a degree) and, more problematically, veers towards placing all systems—the Globe and the Catholic Church—under the same tent: “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly a light gets turned on and there’s a fair share of blame to go around.” This is a great point to make in defense of how systems work, and how working within them, to achieve goals larger than any individual endeavor could, can lead to blunders made while working without the full scope of knowledge. Fortunately, that commitment to the collective endeavor of knowledge-seeking also involves a fair, collective parceling out of blame—rather than blame falling upon one person—when mistakes come to light. If we consider a recent, epic-narrative approach to praise and blame within systems devoted to working service towards communities, like David Simon’s Baltimore-based series The Wire (2002-2008), it would be difficult to find a character in that series with a take on the system comparable to Baron’s in its optimism. Each Wire season cycles towards climactically turning on the light, in one of the city’s various interlocking public service-oriented systems (police, drug dealers, organized labor, schools, social work, politics, and journalism). But that light is, of course, immediately turned off by some competing element in the same system, or one of the other interlocked systems, usually with the goal of keeping “all systems go,” so to speak. And, instead of a “fair share of blame to go around,” by season’s end an exiled person typically is compelled to overcompensate, and bear the overwhelmingly burdensome effect of all the system’s collective mistakes. The question “how do you get from here to the rest of the world?” voiced by Duquan “Dukie” Weems, easily the most heart-wrenching exile produced in The Wire’s final, newspaper-focused season, underscores the absence of Spotlight’s comparative optimism about what systems can accomplish, even when they prove, in certain instances, blameworthy. Not only is Dukie Weems caught up in an interlocking web of systems that consistently fail to assist him, but once the action exiles him beyond even these flawed systems, “the rest of the world” merely consists in the even more violently, damagingly unregulated spaces beyond the systems’ reach.
Marty Baron’s defense of the Globe’s—and journalism’s—version of the system, however, admits to the necessity of sharing blame in collective endeavor while also, of course, coming rather close to exonerating other flawed systems ostensibly committed to collective public service and the spreading of knowledge—like, for example, the Boston archdiocese. Baron’s initial encouragement of the Spotlight team’s research on clergy sexual abuse cases emphasizes the need to move beyond merely attaching individual blame to guilty priests, as this approach reinforces the “few bad apples” reading of the situation. Instead, “we’re going after the system” becomes the rallying-cry, and spreading a fair share of blame around the Catholic church entails uncovering top-down complicit knowledge of sexual abuse and ordered priest-transferals; assembling evidence and victims’ testimony against many priests (finding the percentages and doing the math matters a lot to this research); following the money, in the form of settlements to victims over the years; and getting confirmation from within the Church’s legal defense. And yet, even with the clear corollaries that the film wants to draw between the paired systems of urban newspaper and archdiocese, walking away from Spotlight with a Wire-inspired cynicism towards all systems’ original sin of collective blame-spreading—since blame-spreading can so often look like blame-hiding—misses the point, I think, of what this film can accomplish. To echo Dukie Weems, to get from Boston to the rest of the world, you have to, in a sense, inform the Cardinal that the Globe will work independently of the Church. In other words, to go after a corrupt system, you have to commit to inhabiting a comparatively better one, pitting its claims to the creation of knowledge against the other—and, in the end, let the public decide and call in, as the film movingly depicts in its final moments. These prove the decisive steps towards articulating that bigger narrative that contradicts and lessens the effects of pride of place: the global list of cities, at the film’s end.
As the Globe’s Spotlight coverage over the course of several years bears out, Ronald Paquin would ultimately prove the first of the accused priests to admit his guilt in a criminal molestation trial. Several of the initially thirteen, and eventually eight-seven, suspicious priests central to the Spotlight investigation are referred to repeatedly in the film—by their victims, by victims reporting on evidence they’ve gathered from other support-group victims, by the Globe reporters, by the lawyers involved, by the ex-priest-turned-psychotherapist whom the reporters consult, and even by Law, and the many public relations-savvy lay members of Boston-area Catholic educational and charitable organizations. Yet the much-talked-about sexually abusive priests themselves remain just outside the film’s own “spotlight,” so to speak. They reside in fleeting presentations of found footage from the Globe’s initial coverage, or we briefly catch sight of them through window-blinds, sequestered in police department breakrooms, where they tend to be temporarily held and protected, rather than questioned or charged. What these priests did—in many cases, repeatedly, as well as how they selected, approached and coerced their victims, why they did it, what they may have felt about their actions, how they rationalized these acts and the subsequent cover-ups to themselves, and perhaps to others around them: the film and the Globe’s Spotlight coverage provide few answers to any of these questions. In keeping with the journalistic perspective on damaging, systemically-secret betrayals of public trust established by Spotlight’s most readily-recognizable influence, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), the film’s plot does not delve into the murky, awful, part-powerful, part-pathetic motivations behind these victimizations of the powerless. Its point is to transform what has been discovered to be a long-term state of exception back into the crime scene—or the series of many crime scenes—that it is has always been, and to adjust our readings of these scenes accordingly so that they seem less like exceptions and more like crimes. As flawed an institution as it may be, the press proves essential in these films to the needed, narrative recasting of enduring states of exception back into crime scenes—with the demands for a secular, juridical designation of responsibility and blame that crime scenes require.
In consulting the Boston Globe’s original Spotlight coverage for this review, I discovered that, prior to his appointment in Haverhill’s St. John the Baptist parish in the early 1980s, Ronald Paquin had been an assistant pastor at St. Monica’s parish in Methuen, from the mid-1970s to his removal, due to early complaints of inappropriate behavior and abuse, to Haverhill in the early 1980s. The mention of Paquin’s Haverhill background in Spotlight probably would have jumped out at other Massachusetts-born viewers as well: the mention of Haverhill (in the film) and also of Methuen (in the Globe’s coverage) marks Paquin as someone working in the formerly textile-industrial defined area of the Merrimack Valley (where I grew up), and not, strictly speaking, in the city or suburbs of Boston. St. Monica’s became my parents’ parish when they decided that attending church would be a thing we would do as a family, in the early 1980s. I never came across Paquin, but the Globe’s coverage follows the cover-up of allegations against Paquin at St. Monica’s and directly implicates a pastor I distinctly remember from my childhood-time as a churchgoer.
You might walk away from Spotlight wondering what the priests involved in the everyday, methodical covering-up of abuse allegations say to each other, to their congregations, to their superiors—not merely regarding abuse allegations against other priests, but just their general conversation, how they exist and communicate on an everyday basis, within institutions responsible for the maintenance of such a system. My memories of the hours spent in church from 1982-1992 are pretty vague, but I do recall one particular afternoon spent in church listening to the pastor I’ve just described. The only reason I remember this specific day would be that, of course, most Massachusetts kids with any attachment at all to baseball or softball would remember the weekend I’m recalling: October 25, 1986—game six of the World Series, Red Sox versus Mets, the 10-inning nail-biting loss at Shea, Mookie Wilson, Bob Stanley, Bill Buckner, etc. At Mass the next day, the pastor I’ve mentioned presided, and delivered a homily that revolved around—I am not making this up—the theme “why couldn’t Bill Buckner have just gotten that ball?” So if you are wondering what kind of priests and pastors could be involved in the casual cover-ups of abuse scandals, my own answer would be: unfortunately, the friendly, funny, charismatic, and outwardly-innocuous ones, who possessed an accurate sense of how their congregations actually wanted to occupy their weekend time, for the most part very far from Church.
I mention this pastor as he presents a significant contrast to one last crucial detail evident in Spotlight: a certain set of character traits, and a certain lifestyle choice, persistent among some of those most instrumental to the work needed to take on the archdiocese system. The character traits? Quirkiness, abruptness, rudeness, crankiness. The lifestyle choice? Celibacy.
Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the lawyer most committed to amassing information regarding clerical sexual abuse cases prior to the Globe’s interest, abruptly asks Rezendes during a meeting whether he’s married. Rezendes is, in fact, married, but his living situation suggests estrangement from his wife, partly as a result of his time commitment to work. Garabedian seems to grasp this, and observes that Rezendes’ situation is why he never got married himself: “What I do is too important.” Garabedian and Rezendes, like Marty Baron and Phil Saviano, all appear to be removed, at least in the time covered by the film, from the prospect of married life. In different ways, what they all do is too important to them, too time-consuming, too much of a defining vocation to allow breathing-space for a wife and/or family. Together, they also all share some defining character traits that we might collectively designate as antisocial: Garabedian is a periodically shouting, paranoid crank—while also being very thorough and accurate in his information; Rezendes is just annoying, to pretty much everyone—if also highly effective in getting what he wants, in terms of information; Saviano is shrill—and, again, correct and methodical in his information-gathering; Baron, the least grating in this bunch, just seems comparatively shy and soft-spoken, but also proves highly effective. All of these men collectively lack the affable, socially-skilled, charismatic attachment to pride of place associated with Catholicism in the film, and that I would associate with the real-life pastor I’ve mentioned. And, in what I suspect might be Spotlight’s subtle wink at one of the least-convincing stand-alone explanations for systemic clerical sexual abuse cases—that is, the celibacy requirements for priests—all of these men actually live what the film, at least, designates as celibate lives.
A substantial part of me joins Spotlight in its celebratory presentation of the triumph of the antisocial, quirky, outsider, especially since all of these men articulate the most substantial critiques of the “pride of place” device I discussed earlier. Moreover, I appreciate the irony of information-gathering non-priests, who live out the consequences of what celibacy requirements are allegedly intended to instill in priests—namely, the capacity to say “what I do is too important,” and thus more important than the distractions of sexual desire, or the solace derived from love of and for one other person. Yet I wonder about Spotlight’s addiction to celebrating those who ascetically abjure all distractions, sexual and otherwise, in the pursuit of vocation. The devoted—particularly when they repeatedly call attention to their devotion—can still be a real drag, whether they are wearing a priestly collar or not. Those working to shine a spotlight upon the institutions most convinced of their own sanctity ought to be aware of that.
 Sacha Pfeiffer, “Treatment Center for Priest Called Site of Abuse,” The Boston Globe, 20 March 2002, A1.
 Sacha Pfeiffer and Stephen Kurkjian, “Priest Says He, Too, Molested Boys,” The Boston Globe, 26 January 2002.
 Anthony Lane, “Doing the Right Thing,” The New Yorker, 9 November 2015, 76.
 Gone Baby Gone, directed by Ben Affleck (2007; Miramax, 2008), DVD.
 Sacha Pfeiffer, “Priest Pleads Guilty to Raping Altar Boy,” The Boston Globe, 1 January 2003, A1.
 Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V. Robinson, “Suit Ties Boy’s Death to Abuse by Priest,” The Boston Globe, 23 April 2002, A12.