Thursday, August 4, 2016

Spotlight (2015): A Look at Abuse Dynamics

Title: Spotlight
Director: Tom McCarthy
Language: English
Rating: R (language, descriptions of sexual crimes)

Spotlight is low-key and intense. Based on a true story, it shows the methodical, plodding, emotionally draining work put in by a team of investigative reporters from The Boston Globe, as they revealed a widespread coverup of child sexual abuse in their city's Catholic church hierarchy.

The movie stays respectful of its subject matter. There's no mindless grandstanding or sensationalism. It presents disturbing details in a straightforward way.

Though the movie focuses on one major religious organization, it highlights some general characteristics of abuse and institutional coverups:

  • Living in silence, unacknowledged, is soul-killing. When victims hear support for their abusers and the institution sheltering them, it's brutal. Abuse victims who do speak about what happened risk getting ostracized, condemned as liars, or dismissed as crazy (an especially callous accusation, as abuse is a major contributing factor to psychological problems). Their pervasive shame and traumatic stress, coupled with other people's indifferent or hostile reactions, are all destructive forces that work against healing.
  • There's no "brick through a window" moment. In this situation, it was enough to keep victims, advocates, and investigators subdued through the means of legal, financial, social, and spiritual pressure. The threat of physical harm wasn't necessary. It was often enough for people to fear losing their jobs and becoming social pariahs.
  • Some characteristics increase the chances of abuse. Many of the child victims were poor. They may have come from a broken or dysfunctional family. Sometimes, they were socially isolated for other reasons, like sexual orientation. There are multiple ways for an abuser to assert control: giving victims attention when they're starved for it, pretending that they see the victim as special and precious, relying on their position as authority figures (and in this case, spiritual authorities) to ensure compliance and silence even without the use of force, luring the victim gradually and then making them feel like what happened was their fault and that they bear the shame of it. The shame also gets reinforced by ideas that pervade the broader culture (for example, toxic ideas about loss of masculinity and purity).
  • There isn't one major villain. Even though the movie introduces specific figures from the church, including an elderly cardinal who helped with the coverups, there really isn't one main villain. The movie is full of a more ordinary "see nothing, do nothing" evil, where people look away and try not to think about things they've witnessed. Or they come up with rationalizations for why the situation or the institution isn't as bad as it seems. They point out the church's charitable acts, as if abuse is something that can get canceled out. Maybe they become angry at the victims. People often don't want to face the psychological costs (along with possible social and financial repercussions) of questioning a person or institution they've long worked with, invested in, and put faith in. Some of the reporters also realize that in the past they helped suppress knowledge of the abuse, burying stories about priests and not thinking to investigate if there was a larger pattern of coverups.
  • There isn't a lone hero. It takes multiple people to bring the bigger picture of abuse to light - various abuse survivors, the reporters and their editor, a beleaguered lawyer, and an ex-priest. People outside the close-knit Boston Catholic community play an important role. They're from out of state, or from a different religion, ethnicity or nationality (like the Jewish editor and the Armenian lawyer). Outsiders don't have the emotional ties or potential psychological blinkers of people more enmeshed in the community. The investigative reporters were raised Catholic and were rooted in Boston. Though they've drifted from Catholicism as adults, one of them still attends church with her grandma sometimes, another still feels connected to his Catholic high school, and a third has fond memories of going to church as a child. The revelations of a coverup affect them deeply, forcing them to confront their assumptions about an important part of their lives and some of the people they know.
  • Not buying into the "bad apples" dismissal. Sometimes people downplay the abuse by commenting on how the abusers are just a few "bad apples." (Generally, when priests break their vow of sexual purity, it's with other adults.) However, even "a few bad apples" are a few too many. The devastation they cause is immeasurable. And for every individual abuser, there are many more enablers. The corruption spreads unchecked through the institution and its supporters.
The acting in Spotlight reminds me of Law & Order (back when I used to watch it) - the characters slip quietly into their roles, and the movie focuses mostly on their work, not their personal lives. I like how the movie doesn't try to glamorize investigative reporting. It shows the main characters poring over files and spreadsheets, looking up dozens of names in directories, and trying to find archived documents. But it sustains the dramatic tension throughout. Each little moment of discovery is exciting, and each setback is so frustrating. Though many perpetrators will never get arrested, the investigative work helps give the victims acknowledgement. It also tears away some of the widespread denial and excuses, hopefully reducing the number of future victims.