Spotlight is a film about journalists being really good at journalism, which at first glance sounds extremely boring — Liev Schreiber storming into a room and saying "clickbait!", John Slattery diligently reporting a local mum who is angry at a pothole, Mark Ruffalo furiously chasing invoices – but it's actually gripping: Michael Keaton is at his half-fierce post-Birdman best, Mark Ruffalo shuffles around in a two-sizes-too-big-for-him shirt and nervous messenger bag, and Rachel McAdams plays that rarest of things – a rounded female character who isn't anyone else's prize or motivation – all with quiet, Oscar-nominated aplomb.
It's really good! It's nominated for three Academy statuettes! There's an extended three-minute scene that makes searching through the archives for the names of sex criminal priests look really fun! And it's also based on real life events, and that's what's so weird about it: that one of the biggest exposés in journalism history, a huge curtain pull on the entire Catholic church that won its authors a Pulitzer prize and happened as recently as 2002, has been sort of... forgotten about.
Spotlight centres around the Boston Globe's year-long investigation into widespread sexual abuse of children by a number of the city's priests, as well as the Boston Archdiocese's systematic efforts to cover it all up.
In the UK we largely have a nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach to abuse within the church, but the Globe was the first newspaper to show proof of it: not only of priests, such as John Geoghan, who had committed crimes against children, but of attempts by the church to keep them hidden from authorities by shuffling priests like Geoghan from parish to parish, keeping them on so-called "sick leave" in church-run rehabilitation centres, before switching them to other parishes to reoffend – and all the while paying nominal hush money settlements to victims.
The poster-boy for the cover up was the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, who oversaw a number of these inter-parish priest transfers to keep the story quiet, and was found by the Globe to be aware of all the crimes being perpetrated in his constituency in legal documents that were sealed at the church's request.
It's estimated the offences went back as far as the 1970s, with Geoghan alone revealed to have been responsible for molesting 130 children over a three-decade period. And it wasn't just in Boston: after the Globe's four-person Spotlight investigation team spent a year uncovering the truth and publishing a huge exposé, they were swamped with reports from all over the country – and the world.
"We got inundated with phone calls," the Globe's editor-at-large and former head of Spotlight, Walter "Robby" Robinson told me. "Not just from victims in Boston, but over 300 from the US and all over the world: we were getting phone calls from people in Australia and New Zealand and the UK and in Ireland and France and Italy... people saying, 'What's going on here?' or, 'I was a victim as well.'"
In Boston alone, at the time of the original report, Spotlight revealed that more than 70 priests – around 6 percent of the priests in the city – were involved. By the time they were finished with their 600-article, year-long exposé, that number was closer to 250, or one in ten of the city's priests.
The trailer for 'Spotlight'
Boston is a city with Catholicism marbled through it ("Think of it more like Ireland," Robinson says), which made the impact of Spotlight's investigation that bit more immediate. But the scale of the abuse – though shocking – didn't shake the city's faith. "The people who were devout Catholics were very, very angry," says Michael Rezendes, current head of Spotlight and played by Mark Ruffalo in the film. "But not at the Globe: their anger didn't make them question their faith, but made them angry at Cardinal Law for allowing this to happen and sullying an institution they loved so much and love today."
Ultimately, how the church dealt with the Globe's investigation was underwhelming: although promising wholesale changes in managing priests and bringing them to justice, it's not exactly clear if and how they enforced them.
"Well, they brought in reforms," Rezendes says. "But the survivors will tell you those reforms have not been sufficient to stop these priests and protect these children and do background checks and investigations. It's not been enough."
Cardinal Law, the closest the film gets to a real-life Disney villain, took his sweet time making way for a replacement, and was the benefactor of the church's "move on" tactic, eventually shifted and effectively promoted to the Vatican. "It took almost a year for Law to resign," Rezendes says. "Ultimately he offered to because his position was untenable. He had the blood of so many children on his hands that he had no moral position left in Boston."
Watching Spotlight gives you an idea about how large a problem this is, not just in Boston (although the film is so of-the-city that the Boston skyline could feasibly be counted as an additional character), but worldwide. The film closes with the Spotlight team coming to work on a sleepy Sunday to the phones ringing off the hook, and fades to four panels detailing the dozens of cities and towns where similar abuses were consequently found to take place – including the UK, where last year a sexual abuse enquiry into the Catholic and Anglican churches was launched – underlining the importance of investigative journalism.
"It was the first big investigative story of the internet age," says Robinson. "The first big story of that type to go viral. For many Catholics in the US, and certainly in Boston, it's still the first thing they think of when they think of the Catholic church."
This journalism-as-a-public-service theme is played over a looming sense of print starting to die – the whole Spotlight investigation is kickstarted by a new editor bought in as rumbles of the newspaper industry starting to fail got louder – but despite the Globe cutting staff in the preceding years and closing foreign bureaus, its dedication to Spotlight has seen the team expand.
"We have a responsibility to hold individuals and institutions accountable," says Rezendes. "I think awareness of the threat of investigative reporting that we are all facing right now is good – good for people to be aware of, and good for people to know the importance of investigative journalism."
Spotlight is in cinemas from today, the 29th of January
More on VICE: