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Oscar-Nominated Film Shines Spotlight on Catholic Church Scandal

  • Penelope Poulou

The global spotlight on the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of widespread pedophilia by priests began as the spark of an idea in a Boston newsroom.

A film chronicling that story, called Spotlight, is now a contender for six Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year.

Investigating the Church

In 2002, Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, assigns Spotlight, the paper’s team of investigative journalists, to look into mounting evidence that Boston priests molested kids in six different parishes over a period of thirty years.

The film shows that Baron wanted Spotlight to prove systemic corruption within the higher echelons of Boston’s Archdiocese. He wanted to prove that the church manipulated the system so that those priests would not have to face charges by moving them into different parishes time and time again.

Director Tom McCarthy’s film accurately depicts the courage it took on the part of the Globe’s Spotlight team to go after Boston’s most powerful institution, the Catholic church. Baron, the paper’s newly appointed executive editor, was not from Boston and not a Catholic, and was able to look at the problem with fresh eyes.

“In Boston I was called an outsider” recalled Baron, who has been an editor with the Washington Post since 2012. “You know, vocabulary says a lot. It signals a lot. I was viewed as someone who was not from Boston and not of Boston.”

The film shows that in a town that is predominantly Catholic, it was not easy to ask sensitive questions. While digging, the Spotlight team met a wall of secrecy. The Church had already settled cases with victims behind closed doors. The film also supports the report that legal documents proving abuse cases against priests were misplaced from Boston’s court house. It also shows how Spotlight discovered that legal teams involved in those settlements were complicit in covering up those cases.

Gradually Spotlight brought to light that the scope of the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of the 70 pedophile priests was as large as the incidents of abuse themselves.

Behind the Headlines

Spotlight has been hailed as one of the best films this year, for its stellar ensemble cast, its taut and intelligent script, its focused and deliberate story arc. But as Oscar nominee screenwriter Josh Singer says, Spotlight’s impact lies in reminding people how free investigative journalism can call out corruption.

“The church was not the only bad actor,” he pointed out. “There is a line in the film ‘it takes a village.’ And I think there is a bigger question here, why do we look the other way…the fact that so many people knew a little piece of this puzzle and yet nobody acted to put it together makes us all ask why did we look the other way? Who is going to step in? The answer is the Fourth Estate.”

WATCH: Director, screenwriter discuss how actors got into the story

Oscar nominated filmmaker Ton McCarthy notes that Spotlight’s story was one of the first to go “viral.” He says though the Internet was still developing and there was no Google yet, days after Spotlight broke the story, they were hearing from all over the world about similar incidents. Soon after, thousands of international cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy came to light.

Screenwriter Josh Singer chimes in, “It really was a world changing piece of reporting in a way that this very local story became international.”

McCarthy was raised Catholic himself.

“Ultimately this movie, for me, is about faith. Different types of faith, but faith. I think it is something at some point or another, we all wrestle with.” He says a lot still needs to be done within the Church to turn it into a healthy, transparent institution.

Reflecting on Pope Francis, he added, “I love the energy he is creating on so many topics, I love how he’s speaking about religion, I love how he is depoliticizing the message of the church in a really wonderful way and he is a very inclusive Pope. But I feel most people who are dealing specifically with this issue feel like it’s still all talk and no action.”

WATCH: Abuse survivor talks about why it continued for so long

Mark Serrano, a survivor of clergy abuse and an advocate for others agrees.

“There is so much to learn from Spotlight and I hope [Pope] Francis watches it.” He continued, “Francis may talk a good game but Francis needs to act if we are to believe the children are safe within the Catholic church. Francis has the ability and the opportunity within a moment to hold bishops accountable. What has he done so far? He’s put a commission together, like we really need a blue ribbon commission to study bishops and their complicity in decades of sexually traumatic crimes and abuse. We don’t need a commission. He doesn’t need a commission to advise him. He just needs to take action.”

In addition to Best Picture, Spotlight has been nominated for Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original script and Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer.