Spotlight and the Oscars



Spotlight and the Oscars: Hooray for Hollywood – A look behind the camera   (February 27, 2016)


American viewers (almost 37 million last year) will tune in for the Oscars’ pageant on Sunday evening, February 28. One of the contenders will be Spotlight, the true story of how the Boston Globe’s specialized team of investigative reporters, known as The Spotlight Team, broke wide open in early 2002 the story of clergy abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Boston. The movie’s six Oscar nominations are for:

Best picture; Best director; Best supporting actor and actress; Best editing; Best original screenplay.  

From anecdotal information, many moviegoers have stayed away from Spotlight fearing that it is a graphic portrayal of child abuse. Not so. The center of gravity of the movie is the real-life tension in the Globe’s newsroom, and the relentless efforts of the Spotlight team that would not be pushed off the story.  The movie has just about broken even, with box office receipts through mid-February of $38 million which is almost double the production budget of $20 million.  That is close to break-even under the Hollywood 2:1 rule of thumb for box office coverage of post-production marketing and distribution costs.  But one of the executive producers, Pierre Omidyar, has truly deep pockets, a net worth of almost $9 billion thanks to his eBay and Paypal investments. Interesting that a French-born member of the Iranian diaspora chose to bankroll this movie.

IMO, Spotlight is the best media movie since All the President’s Men and the Watergate scandal; and there is a family link between these two pictures:

Ben Bradlee père, was the Washington Post’s managing editor who stood up to major heat from the Nixon White House; and Ben Bradlee Jr fils, was #2 in the Globe’s newsroom hierarchy, but in the movie he seemed to curb his enthusiasm when it came to support for the Spotlight team.

The Globe story broke , appropriately enough, on the Feast of the Epiphany – Sunday, January 6, 2002 – not many months after 9/11. In retrospect, this was really a case of two major paradigm shifts hitting in close proximity, and shattering the conventional wisdom of that era about national security and about the Catholic hierarchy.

As a Bostonian, and with some perspective on the workings of the Church and the Archdiocese of Boston, I offer the comments below that are part of the back-story of the clergy abuse scandal that has rocked the Church worldwide over the past decade and a half. The discussion is structured around two of the major institutions involved: the Globe and the Vatican.

As for the Archdiocese of Boston, at the time the scandal broke in 2002 there were just under 400 parishes across the archdiocese. Today after two rounds of pastoral planning there is a plan to downsize in a couple of years to 125 parishes. This is nothing less than a story of the accelerating decline in one of the oldest dioceses in Catholic America, established in 1808.  Details for a posting in the near future.

The Globe                                                                                                                    

What’s truly scary about Spotlight is that the now-global clergy sex abuse story did not become a story until the newsroom of the Globe decided it was a story; then, it went viral and eventually became global, but it developed in slo-mo over a ten-year period.

The Globe’s Editors                                                                                                                          

The movie makes clear that other media in Boston had parts of the story before the Globe, notably the Boston Herald as well as the Boston Phoenix – a counter-cultural weekly. But it took the departure of the executive editor of the Globe in mid-2001 and the arrival of a genuine outsider (doesn’t like baseball!) to bring the story off the shelf of the Spotlight team’s archives.  The movie studiously avoids naming the departing editor. While several Globe staffers are named in full, the movie’s opening scene shows the awkward farewell for the exec editor who is tagged simply as “Stewart.” During “Stewart’s” editorial regime, several stories casting shadows on the archdiocese had not run – spiked. And the departing editor’s next job was as a tenured professor of journalism at a major Catholic university. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

The Globe’s Beat Reporters                                                                                                 

The movie ends by posing the root question, if this was so pervasive within the archdiocese, how did we miss it?                                                                                  The Spotlight team takes the blame, but in fairness to them they were a Special Ops kind of outfit, moving quickly from crisis to crisis.

IMO, the Globe’s major failure prior to the Spotlight team’s mobilization was somewhere between its Religion reporting beat and its Metro reporting beat:   With over 400 parishes across the archdiocese, with over 700 active priests in the archdiocese, and with Cardinal Bernard Law as the most powerful prelate in North America, was there really nothing for the beat reporters to sniff out?

The Vatican

                                                                                                                    The movie ends on Sunday, January 6, 2002, when the story breaks. But in the aftermath a fascinating sequel unfolded in Rome. Here are some of the major protagonists.

Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos                                                                            

Regarding the Vatican, it has to be kept in mind that by 2002 the Holy See was essentially leaderless. The long decline of the Polish Pope, St. John Paul II, had become painfully visible. Visiting cardinals ‘communicated’ with the Pope through His private secretary who would whisper into the Pope’s ear something in Polish, and then repeat aloud in translation to the visitor what the Pope had supposedly uttered sotto voce.                                        

In this bizarre environment, the reaction of the Rome cardinals was to deny and contain.

The first visible Vatican effort at damage control was to summon the American cardinals to a meeting in Rome in March, 2002 (the closest thing on Planet Earth to an actual Come to Jesus meeting).                                                                                                                    The (metaphorical) elephant in the room, of course, was Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law who was in Rome but too busy to attend the inevitable post-meeting presser. ..dinner plans! His fellow cardinal, Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, presided and dropped this acid comment:

Concerning the problem of sexual abuse and pedophilia…It’s already an X-ray of the problem that so many of the questions [are] in English

This remark suggested that clerical pedophilia was a disease found mainly in English-speaking countries. However absurd that might be (as proven abundantly in subsequent years), the wisecrack reflected a view I encountered frequently in Rome over the following years, that clergy sex abuse of minors was really a function of America’s declining moral values, obsession with sex, and materialism run wild.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (elected pope in 2005)

In 2002, shortly after the Spotlight reporting had begun, the cardinal said:

I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign.”

But three years later on March 25, 2005, literally days before the death of St. John Paul II, while delivering his Meditations on the Way of the Cross, Cardinal Ratzinger had this to say:

How much filth there is in the Church.”

Something of a U-turn, in the glare of media attention of the last days of Pope John Paul II and prospects for the inevitable conclave,  And few weeks later, on April 19, 2005 Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. The runner-up was Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

An American Monsignore, working in the Vatican’s ‘West Wing’                               Touted by some as on a fast track to cardinal, the monsignore said to me: “The problem with Catholic Boston is that it is too Catholic (sic)!”

He explained that in his home state, part of the Bible Belt, if a Catholic priest so much as jay-walked he would spend the night in the county jail – but in Boston no police chief or DA would take on the Church.  This comment came back to me in July of 2003, 18 months after the scandal broke, and six months after Cardinal Law slipped out of town, when the Massachusetts Attorney General issued a scathing on report titled The Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. By then it was politically safe to pile on.  A Profile in Caution.

Cardinal Bernard Francis Law                                                                                      After the Vatican accepted his resignation as archbishop of Boston in December, 2002, and a stint doing penance at a convent in Maryland, the cardinal surfaced in Rome as the archpriest of a church. A Boston reporter called me to confirm that this was punishment, namely spending the rest of his life as a humble parish priest.  I told the reporter that the church in question was the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s trophies, but this did not make it into his story. A couple of years later during the Novemdiales, the traditional nine days of mourning for the deceased Pope (St John Paul II), the reporter realized that Cardinal Law was the celebrant for one of the nine High Masses. He called me with a question, “Is this a big deal?” Answer, “Yup.”

There is an interesting sidelight on Cardinal Law’s last months as archbishop of Boston.  A source in-a-position-to-know told me that preparations were well-advanced to have the archdiocese file a petition for bankruptcy. This was viewed as a ploy to pressure the attorneys for hundreds of alleged abuse victims into a settlement.  But it was not a bluff: One of the major RCAB creditors had given the o.k. for a ‘haircut’, namely payment of much less than 100 cents on the dollar; this would have set the benchmark for many other creditors. Paperwork for the filing was in ready to go, with the expectation of a swift in-and-out of Chapter 11 proceedings.                                                                          However, Law’s brother cardinals in the U.S. lobbied hard in Rome against this step, fearful of the precedent. For the Vatican, the clinching argument against a Boston archdiocese bankruptcy filing was two-fold:

Fear of the bankruptcy discovery process, where relevant communications between the archdiocese and congregations in Rome would be fair game; and fear that the sovereign immunity shield of protection for the Holy See as a state recognized by the U.S. might be breached.

Over the past 13 years eleven Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy, the latest in January of 2015. Who is next? Stay tuned…  


During Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, one of his generals had a heated argument with a Vatican cardinal, and the general burst out:                                                                     “Your Eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?”

Cardinal Ercole Consalvi responded:

Mon general, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the Church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.



14 thoughts on “Spotlight and the Oscars

  1. Timing is everything. Watched the movie last night on Fios on demand. Any idea how the film is doing in the view at home market?

    • Hi Kitsie:
      Don’t know how Spotlight is doing ‘in demand’, am tracking through Mojo website, hope for a bump if it scores a couple of Oscars, maybe for Supporting Actor or Actress; this usually results in more promo $$ from producers trying to ride the wave, and ExceProd Omidyar could afford it.

  2. Quite a while ago, NPR did a “Where’s Waldo?” segment , sending a reporter to find Law. He was not to be found. Do you know where he is now?

    • The last confirmed sighting of Bernard Francis Law (other than in some downtown Rome ristoranti) was at the rectory of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Although his assignment as archpriest there ended promptly after his pro forma offer of resignation in the fall of 2011, his successor as archpriest refrained from moving in…a courteous gesture, but also prompted by the incoming cardinal-archpriest’s wish to remain in his apartment which was much closer to the Vatican and the center of action.
      I saw Cardinal Law going into his titular parish, Santa Susanna, on Sunday, March 10, 2013, shortly before the conclave the elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
      Directly across the street there were at least a dozen newsfolks and several TV cameras covering Cardinal O’Malley’s Mass at Santa Maria della Vittoria. But not a single media hound staking out Cardinal Law.
      The day after his conclave election, Pope Francis made a surprise early morning visit to Santa Maria Maggiore, without a courtesy heads-up to Cardinal Law, who apparently slept through the event. This was interpreted as a gesture.
      Cardinal Law’s longtime personal secretary, Msgr. Paul McInerny (or McInerney?), wrapped up things at Boston Catholic Television, and then joined the cardinal in Rome in 2005, “to pursue studies in canon law.” Any irony there?

  3. Peter, being a part of that horrific event in my CCD Program I say thank you for exposing such abuse in the Roman Catholic Churches in Boston. Unfortunately I have been helping victims once again to try and put the nightmare behind them. Many victims are in a great deal of pain once again so when we watch the Oscars say a prayer for those whose lives have been overturned because of this nightmare. Many calls, many tears and trying once again to pick up the pieces. Please pray for all victims, parents, spouces, siblings and families.

  4. Law is living very comfortably. First hand account from David Boerr, Septemer of 2011.

    He is in the phone book?

    Cardinal Bernard Law currently lives at the earliest Renaissance palace in Rome — the Palazzo della Cancelleria, or the Papal Chancellery. (David Boeri/WBUR.

  5. Legal observers, not in employ of RCAB or connected in any way, have commented that bankruptcy would have resulted in far less payment to sex abuse victims. Often lost in discussion is the fact that at all times the RCAB was subject to the charitable immunity cap set at 25k by statute. Also lost in the discussion is that many claims would have been barred by the statute of limitations. Once bankruptcy was filed, the court assigned trustee would have a duty to follow the law. Far less $$$ would have been paid out. However, there would have been public disclosure of each claimant. To be considered a claimant, each claimant would have had to file suit and get either a settlement of judgment.

    In the end RCAB must have decided it was better to close parishes and sell off parochial schools rather than disclose in court records the full extent of the pedophilia in RCAB; and the pervasive and longstanding coverup.

    • Your are correct, there were several issues for&against filing for bankruptcy.
      What I am adding to the discussion, for the first time as far as I know, is the role of Rome as the ultimate decider, NOT Cardinal Law.
      And the Vatican’s concern about sovereign immunity was crucial, as relayed to me in the Palazzo Apostolico.

  6. Yes, I see that. The other Archdioceses perhaps learned to be more discreet in their communications with The Vatican. Perhaps this is behind Pope Francis’ plan to relegate just about everything to the local Bishop. However, in the end, Pope Francis has initiated two important vehicles: a Vatican tribunal to punish clergy who try to cover up instances of abuse and a commission that recommends how best to help survivors. Whether or not this leaves the Vatican open to liability is an open question.

  7. This was precisely why I was reluctant to see the movie. I did not want to experience vicariously what the poor victims had. In the end the movie portrays great investigative journalism, pervasive and longstanding corruption and pathology in the hierarchy of the RCAB.

    I found Spotlight to be the most captivating film I have seen in years. My 92 year old Aunt called insisting that I see it. She was right.

    In many ways it is the ultimate payback to RCAB. No pretty scenery, no salacious exits, no wardrobe changes. It is raw and rises to the occasion.

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