Watching ‘Spotlight’, I was proud of my vocation and ashamed of my church

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Properly practiced, journalism is an honorable, but not a dignified vocation, and the cool, unsentimental way in which Spotlight captures that makes it one of best films ever made about newspaper work.

The movie is up for six Academy Awards, and I hope it wins every one—though my friend Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal’s indispensable film critic, predicts it will get only one for best original screenplay, and he’s usually right about these things.

If you’ve yet to see it—and you should see it—“Spotlight” recreates the investigation by the Boston Globe’s four-reporter team of that name that exposed not only widespread pedophilia on the part of the region’s Catholic clergy, but also the decades long cover-up of the wrong-doing, a process that went right to the top of the archdiocese’ chancery and involved Cardinal Bernard Law. The Globe was a paper staffed by many Irish Catholics, covering their people and their church in what’s probably the most tribal of all American cities. The paper, in fact had passed on previous tips that would have lead them into the scandal. It wasn’t until the paper’s new editor, Marty Baron, was installed by a new owner, the New York Times. Baron was by his own admission an outsider who knew only two people in Boston, a couple he hadn’t seen in years. Worse, as one character in the film describes him, he was Jewish, single and didn’t like baseball.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills—probably the most important American Catholic intellectual of the past half century—points to an important difference that distinguishes what the Globe did from what Woodward and Bernstein did for the Washington Post during Watergate, an investigation depicted in another fine film on journalism, “All the President’s Men.”

“Both films retain some of the clichés of such tales—the resistance of society to what the enterprising reporters are trying to do, the difficulty of prying evidence from fearful witnesses, the final victory of the good guys over powerful resistance,” Wills notes. “But there are many differences. Woodward and Bernstein were outside the normal political reporting of Washington. The ‘Spotlight Four,’ though not churchgoers, were all Catholic-raised or influenced. The crimes being investigated were more personal and religious, combining sexual and theological inhibitions.”

That latter point is particularly important because it goes to the heart of what was genuinely—rather than melodramatically—heroic about what the Globe’s Spotlight team did. It also comes at a time when both newspaper journalists and their readers stand in desperate need of a reminder about vital their work is to both our democracy and the fabric of civil society.

In a remarkable essay published this week in the Washington Post, which he now edits, Marty Baron—who usually sleeps through the Academy Awards telecast—describes why he will attend this year’s ceremonies in person. (Full disclosure, Marty and I were colleagues and friends at the Los Angeles Times.) “I feel indebted to everyone who made a film that captures, with uncanny authenticity, how journalism is practiced and, with understated force, why it’s needed,” he wrote. “The awards take the form of a statuette, recognition for outstanding moviemaking. The rewards of this film matter more to me, and they will take longer to judge. The rewards will come if this movie has impact: On journalism, because owners, publishers and editors rededicate themselves to investigative reporting. On a skeptical public, because citizens come to recognize the necessity of vigorous local coverage and strong journalistic institutions. And on all of us, through a greater willingness to listen to the powerless and too-often voiceless, including those who have suffered sexual and other abuse.”

Baron added: “Aside from the acclaim of critics, ‘Spotlight’ already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled ‘scum.’”

(It’s characteristically self-deprecating of Marty to write that Schreiber portrayed him as “a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize.”)

I couldn’t agree more strongly with both Wills’ and Marty Baron’s sentiments, but the truth is that I watched “Spotlight” through two sets of eyes: One was the guy who has given his entire adult life to the vocation of journalism and never has sought or coveted any other pursuit. For those like me, these last years of journalism’s sad and wrenching contraction and—more important—its decline into the object of so much public contempt has been a soul withering experience. That guy’s eyes found a soul-stirring affirmation in “Spotlight’s” honest depiction of what was and is so important about this work.

I felt recalled to courage and fortitude—and thankful that I had been. The other set of eyes that suffered through a confrontation with “Spotlight” belonged to a life-long Roman Catholic, who—like so many—has found the revelations concerning the culture of sexual abuse so widespread and so deeply embedded in the church among the most painful of their lives. The truth about this now global scandal is that while it involved a minority of priests, the overwhelming majority of the bishops and other members of the hierarchy were utterly complicit—if not in actual abuse, then with covering it up. Despite efforts at reform, many remain so.

In this, the hierarchy was abetted in a particularly offensive and off-putting way by conservative American Catholic intellectuals like the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon and commentator and biographer George Wiegel. All, by the way, attacked the Globe for its coverage and defended the contemptible Cardinal Law until the bitter end. All also staunchly supported the most noxious of all the priestly predators, the late Marcial Mariel, the Mexican-born founder of the cultic Legionaries of Christ, who was a great favorite of Pope John Paul II and papered the Vatican with the millions of dollars out of which he conned rich old ladies. Pope Benedict, who always refused the Legionaries’ cash donations, finally forced Mariel out, though only after it had been established that he had fathered at least four children by two women and molested between 20 and 100 seminarians.

Watching “Spotlight,” I was proud of my vocation and ashamed of my church—not only for what had happened, but for way in which the institutional church and its lock-step defenders—the Pharisees who like to label themselves “faithful Catholics” as apart from the rest of us. I’m glad the “Spotlight” team and Marty Baron did what they did and heartbroken by what they found and by the way in which the church responded.

That said, I have not left the church, though I have distanced myself in many ways from its institutional structure. Yes, there are deep questions of belief involved here, too, but if you’re a post-Auschwitz believer, you have somehow come to terms with the agonizing mystery of God’s passivity in the face of unspeakable evil visited upon the innocent. It’s not an entirely comfortable position—and, certainly, not a happy one—but it’s one that takes into account the reality of the situation. What’s important to acknowledge in this moment is that the work of the Globe’s Spotlight team opened our eyes to that reality.

Without good journalism we’ll stumble into the future blind.

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