This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues



On December 17, the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, I went to the movies. Hundreds of fans waited eagerly to be transported into the alternate universe of the evil empire and the noble rebel alliance. I, on the other hand, joined all of three other viewers in watching another movie, one that dealt with real evil that occurred not eons ago but in my lifetime. The movie was Spotlight, named for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that investigated the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. As reviewers have pointed out, the film is an excellent portrayal of an investigative journalism team doggedly pursuing an elusive and powerful foe. The team, consisting of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), follow the story wherever it leads, even as the number of priests implicated swells from four to 13 to 70.. The team’s expose earned a Pulitzer, and their story reassures viewers that, sometimes at least, truth prevails. That should have made me feel good.

Instead, I left the theatre feeling troubled and somewhat dirtied by what I had seen. What gives? I didn’t personally participate in the abuse or cover-up. Is it just that evil has a way of splashing in the muck to such an extent that everyone nearby ends up splattered just by knowing what happened?

The movie reveals a great deal about what did indeed happen. The team encounters several people who had been trying to call attention to the abuse but were ignored. The reporters also learn that lots of people knew at least a part of what was happening but, for one reason or another, didn’t reveal what they knew. One lawyer apparently represented many abuse victims but quietly made settlements with the church, allowing the abuse and the identity of the abusers to be hidden. A second lawyer  represented the church, participating in the dirty job of keeping the abuse private. The Catholic school across the street from the Globe, of which Robby was an alumnus, wants to suppress information that one of the abusing priests found his victims while assigned there. Prominent Bostonians put pressure on the team to drop the investigation, arguing that the church is doing good in the community and thus shouldn’t have its reputation sullied. Robby is told that, as a member of the community, he would have difficulty with his neighbors if he brought shame on the church. One of the reporters ruefully comments, “If it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse one.” Evil resides not just in the pedophile priests but in all who protect them, including those who, while expressing their abhorrence of what the priests did, still hide what they did.

Did learning about the immensity of the abuse cause me to feel contaminated? Such knowledge sobers me and reminds that it is the nature of large institutions, including institutions with which I’m associated, to hide discrediting information. That doesn’t implicate me directly, though. It may produce some sense of being sullied just by virtue of being human, but I don’t think it’s the heart of my reaction.

One thing I noticed about the Spotlight team as portrayed in the film is that each member is affected personally by being part of the investigation. Sacha has a close relationship with her grandmother, a devout Catholic, and is troubled by thinking about how that relative would be affected by the scandal. Matt worries about his own children and the children in his neighborhood being abused. Mike, a lapsed Catholic, becomes distraught after reading some of the documents in the case. He tells Sacha, “I thought I would go back one day. I read those letters and something cracked.” Robby is haunted that the Globe had previously ignored or buried evidence that the abuse was taking place. Since a section of the paper he oversaw had been the burial ground for some such information, he felt personally responsible.

Having missed evidence that should have been noticed may be the other piece of why I felt sullied after watching the movie. There is so much I miss–that we all miss–as we go through life. I’m usually so focused on myself–meeting my obligations, pursuing my goals–that I don’t register much of what goes on around me. I often don’t notice the people who are hurting, people who were wounded by abuse or discrimination or neglect. Then I go to my office to work as a psychologist where I do pay attention to hurting people. I learn from them what it is like to be deeply injured, then to try to make it through life while others ignore them or judge them or simply  misunderstand them.

Robby was haunted by missed opportunities to uncover the church’s systematic concealment of sexual abuse. I miss opportunities to befriend, to comfort, to empathize with those who are suffering. Like the Spotlight team, I may get it right from time to time. Still, those successes are islands in a sea of blindness and deafness to human need. For me, the lesson of Spotlight is to not focus overly much on what I’ve missed, but to instead try each day, each minute, to be aware of that need in those around me.