Ethics Film of the Year: “Spotlight”

No spoiler alerts necessary; I’m not going to say much about the film’s plot. Just go see it.

Sure, I was predisposed to like “Spotlight.” It’s about Boston, my home town; Fenway Park even appears in it, Red Sox and all.  I had also followed the unfolding Catholic Church sexual molestation scandal there that the Boston Globe broke in 2002. This was the Globe’s momentous investigative journalism series which showed the extent to which high-ranking Church officials allowed child predator priests to continue harming trusting kids, as the Church paid for confidential settlements to victims and transferred the criminal priests to other parishes, where they could, and did, strike again. “Spotlight” tells the story of how a group of Globe editors and reporters finally exposed a local conspiracy of corruption that spread across institutions and professions, and that pointed to a world-wide scandal that still haunts the Catholic Church today.

It’s a better ethics movie than “All The President’s Men,” to which it will inevitably be compared. Whether it’s a better movie or not is a matter of taste. (I liked it better.) Where the movie really shines, however, is how it raises so many of the ethics issues we routinely cover here, such as…

  • Legal ethics: the duty of lawyers to represent clients, confidentiality, and when, if ever, human ethics require the breaching of professional ethics.
  • Ethics corruptors, and what happens when admired, trusted and powerful people and institutions require their followers to show their loyalty by ignoring, rationalizing or covering up wrongful acts.
  • Journalism ethics: the business of journalism’s conflict with the duty of journalists to find and publicize the truth; how ambition, personal biases and non-professional concerns can warp perspective and performance
  • Ethics and religion, hypocrisy, and the institutional utilitarian choice to protect the whole when it means sacrificing individuals
  • Rationalizations, including the Saint’s Excuse and the King’s Pass, in which prominence and “good deeds” seem to justify double standards.
  • Hindsight bias, Moral luck, and more.

Indeed, I now have to see the film again and focus only on the ethics scenarios. One of the most difficult has been discussed on Ethics Alarms: confidential settlements. Is it ethical for a severely damaged plaintiff to accept the highest possible settlement at the price of not revealing an ongoing wrong, in this case, one that meant the likely sexual abuse of children?

I also found the story infuriating in the way it showed how vital and beneficial journalism can be when journalists are motivated, focused, and their own political and ideological biases don’t cause them to emulate many of the wrongdoers in the film. Why hasn’t this kind of tough, fearless, go-where-the-evidence-leads investigation been focused on the IRS scandal, for example? The fact that journalists can do their jobs well makes it even more unforgivable that so often they choose not to.

Another thought that went through my head as I was reminded of the astounding human carnage arising out of the Catholic Church’s self-serving conspiracy was how deeply this has harmed religious faith. I had recently watched a fifties-era Glenn Ford movie called “Ransom,” which was later remade into a Mel Gibson thriller. It is about a wealthy man who turns the tables on his young son’s kidnappers by putting up the ransom amount as a bounty on the kidnappers themselves. The film had religion and faith infused throughout the plot and almost every character; the final line in the movie was a Bible quote, given by a black church deacon. When Ford made his televised challenge to the kidnappers, the climax was when he grasped a Bible in both hands, and swore before God that he would not be swayed. The scene would be laughed at today, and scorned by critics. There was virtually no talk of faith or God in the remake.

The Gibson film was made in 1997; faith had already taken a beating from the various televangelist scandals. Then came the child molesting priest cover-up. No wonder religion is in free-fall in the United States, and no wonder politicians who promote the importance of religion are widely portrayed as charlatans and crackpots, especially by the media. When, after the film ends, the screen is filled with two long lists of all the cities in the U.S. and around the world where molesting priests had been allowed to go from locale to locale while bishops and cardinals covered for their crimes, it is difficult to understand how the Catholic Church maintains any shred of credibility at all. Looking back over the hoopla generated by the Pope’s recent visit, one has to wonder “Why?” Why does anyone care what the head of a criminal organization that betrayed its stated values and the trust of children thinks about the moral obligations of the United States, or anything else? I found it puzzling then; after watching “Spotlight,” I find it incredible.

Where “All the President’s Men” left audiences feeling relieved about the nation’s narrow escape, grateful to journalists, and inspired but a little more distrustful of government, “Spotlight” is liable to leave them troubled, angry and a lot more distrustful of everything. If our institutions so callously place their own interests above children, what chance have we got? If you can’t trust your church, who can you trust? “All the President’s Men” ended with the reassurance that while it may be messy, the system works.

“Spotlight,” in contrast, leaves us with the sick feeling that the system doesn’t work, and occasionally we find out about it.

See it.


37 thoughts on “Ethics Film of the Year: “Spotlight”

  1. I remember a report by Paul Harvey that said something to the effect that if he were the devil and he wanted to destroy the world he’d see to it that churches would cover up criminal activity. It was similar in idea to the Screwtape Letters. It does seem that every good thing is easily undone by dishonesty and bad ethics.

  2. Have any of those cardinals been arrested for the cover-up? We have hundreds of thousands of police officers, and yet none of them have the courage to arrest any of these church officials.

    Legal ethics: the duty of lawyers to represent clients, confidentiality, and when, if ever, human ethics require the breaching of professional ethics.

    Professional ethics are absolute.

        • They didn’t cover up crimes. The Church’s lawyers arranged for them to pay money to victims to avoid being charged with crimes (legal and ethical—lawyers do not report their client’s crimes), and the plaintiff’s lawyers did what the plaintiffs wanted—no publicity, compensation. Together, both sets of lawyers allowed the cover-up to continue.

          • I think there is an Objective Ethic that IS absolute. We just haven’t figured it out yet because it is very complex and if we hope to accomplish anything else in life other than studying ethics, we have to accept a summarized series of *incomplete* rules that guide the right choices 98% of the time. Though from the point of view of the Objective, our systems may look like rough rules of thumb, from our point of view they’re “the best we can do for the time we have” while we try to work on ironing out our current systems to adhere closer to the Objective…

          • (in fairness though I shifted terms on you)

            You said there are no absolutes in Ethics…which is currently true.

            And you can make ABSOLUTE statements about Ethics without contradicting the statement that there are no absolutes in Ethics.


    There is “no credible evidence” that Catholic clergy abuse young people any more often than do clergy of any other denomination or members of secular professions who deal with children, according to Philip Jenkins of Baylor University, a national authority on clergy sexual abuse.

    Is this comforting or frightening?

    • It also doesn’t occur more often among priests than it does all other males in the non-clergy population. That doesn’t make it any less troubling for obvious reasons, just something worth pointing out. I’d be interested in comparing modern-day to pre-Vatican II stats on this, as the church deteriorated in so many ways after that.

        • I wonder if there will be a movie about former Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels and the Kern County sex abuse cases.

          Because that undermined the very system we rely on to punish sexual abuse, and it happened at the same time as those Church cover-ups.

      • Well, since priests are supposed to be celibate, are trusted as teachers and role models, and their conduct in molesting children is far more damaging as a result, I don’t really think it is worth mentioning, Joe. By definition they are supposed to be better. If they aren’t, and can’t be trusted to be, what good are they? They are frauds as well as molesters. Non-priests are just molesters.

        • Maybe I should have elaborated on “for obvious reasons”. It would have read like your reply. It’s only worth pointing out because it seems to many Catholics that the church has been the focus of an effort to make it look like molestation is particularly prevalent among its priests, as well as all sorts of other attacks here and abroad, some deserved, others not.

          • Boy, THAT’s a straw man argument. So as long as priests don’t molest kids more than regular people, it’s OK? I dare someone to try that rationalization on me.

            By the way, that was one of Clinton’s defenses—a President is fine as long as he acts like ordinary scuzballs.

            • I suppose the argument he could be trying to make is that any molestation is too much, but we can only focus our resources on some of them. If, for instance, the priesthood can be proven to have fewer molesting members than another group of people, or the population at large, it might be better to focus on the area of most need. I think the clergy get more attention specifically for the reasons you’ve laid out… That its both a betrayal and a sex crime… But I’m not sure that entirely justifies the energy we spend on it, if we could find a way to better help kids in general otherwise.

              • Puzzling comment. The % of suicides, drug abuse and adult dysfunction among these victims is horrific, and there were thousands of them just in Boston. And this is kind of like saying that we pay too much attention to elected officials’ corruption rather than corruption generally…AND the Church claims great trust, moral authority and responsibility while making a lot of money in the process. It’s behaving like a criminal enterprise isn’t worth the energy to expose it?

                • It is. I think I was more thinking out loud and trying to understand the conversation than actually holding the view, even if the raw number of molestation was less than the population at large (and I don’t even know if that’s actually the case), the damage done by priests is disproportionate enough that I think I can easily get behind spending police resources there.

              • Not exactly. I think the church should have a zero-tolerance policy, and priests who do this prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I’m just seeing some ideological motivations at work in the way the media seems to make it seem MORE prevalent in the church, in addition to so many other portrayals of the church as a bad actor.

                  • Where are our wires crossing? I’m not rationalizing anything. Priests should be prosecuted, and church officials who cover this up should probably be fired for bringing scandal on the church and destroying lives. Does believing that the actions of these people shouldn’t result in the church body (us, its members) abandoning our faith and our church amount to a rationalization? Because that’s what I’m driving at, being that the media is doing its best to make it seem this issue is too prevalent for anyone to bother retaining their faith anymore. The church itself began when Jesus appointed Peter its head vicar, a man who, among other things, denied his affiliation with Jesus three times before the Romans. It always has, and always will be comprised of fallible men, but we believe the church as an institution is infallible.

            • Either you’re reading too much into my comment, or I’m failing to convey my point. What’s occuring is terrible for every reason you pointed out and more, and every instance of it that’s concealed is one too many. It needs to be rooted out and exposed. What I’m talking about is the media portraying molestation itself as an epidemic relative to the general population, as if every 3rd priest you encounter is a pedophile who’s going to find a way to molest your kids as a matter of course. You know my theory about why people are being steered away from faith and spirituality, and I see this at work both here and from within the church itself.

    • It’s neither. “Often” has no valid comparison. It’s like his and others’ straw man arguments such as “celibacy doesn’t cause child abuse” when the point is not that ignorant statement but rather that because the priesthood is supposedly bound to celibacy it is/was more trusted than other men/clergymen to have rejected all sexual behavior (why that was deemed trustworthy also answers why “just say no” was not a wise suggestion). Jenkins is a professor of history and an apologist for the Catholic church, not a member of the Catholic clergy, in which case he could say what he pleased (and does); he was not bound, as were the clerics themselves to the Crimens sollicitationis of 1962 to hide all sex crimes (you can read the English translation yourself online). Check below and listen to the mother in Twist of Faith, and the full extent of the coverup in Sex Crimes and the Vatican. Or go see “Spotlight.”

  4. I saw “Spotlight.” It was indeed disturbing, to say the least, if extremely well done. The most disturbing thing — and there were many, many disturbing facts and aspects to it — was that, aside from Boston at a particular point in time, there’s really no resolution to this issue. As Marshall said, Nixon resigned, and that deal was done. Not so with this. At the end of the film was a list of cities, countries, dioceses that have been proved to cover up priest molestation of young boys and girls, just like Boston did. The list came at the end of the movie, on the big screen, in two columns — and it took two whole screens, in small type, to list them.

    Also disturbing — no, absolutely infuriating — was that after Cardinal Law of Boston was proved to have orchestrated the decades-long cover-up in Boston, involving more than a hundred priests and thousands of children, he was…ready?… transferred to a cushy job at the Vatican. Some priests went to jail; one was murdered in jail; and Law sits in splendor in Rome. So this is the Vatican’s response???

    Who can take seriously anything the Roman Church says after this? How can anyone representing the Catholic Church have any moral authority at all? Pope Francis can kiss babies, talk about global warming and the uneven distribution of wealth, but what’s he doing about the thousands of predatory priests who are ruining the lives — and the faith — of thousands of children? Those who ridicule Francis for talking about issues about which he has no information and no expertise should remember this: the issue of priestly abuse of children is something he does know about — and alot of something — and he’s not touching it with a ten foot pole. Easier to deflect with sweetness, care for the poor, and world issues, I suppose. Shame on him. Damn him,in fact.

    I am not naive enough to believe that this is a new problem, so it is no surprise to me that the Vatican wisely set itself up long ago as a city with nation-status, and so can pretty much do what it wants. It won’t change, but I can only hope that Catholics around the world will stop accepting the pay-offs and use the US legal system to at least get at it here. Don’t count on dear old Francis, or anyone in Rome, to touch it.

    We all know that organized religion is as much business as faith. What “Spotlight” proves is how organized religion can be absolutely, totally corrupt — in such an organized and heinous way — at the expense of those it purports to love, teach, care for. What “sin” can a priest forgive when his church commits one of the worst imaginable — on a regular basis?

    Unfortunately this spreads beyond religion to other non-profits and charities as well — no need to mention governments — and we end up trusting no one, having faith in no one. We search for our own “linear constant through chaos,” because we are not and will not be getting it from the Church, or anywhere else.

  5. I saw the film and quite frankly, I didn’t like it much. It is not “All The President’s Men” by any means and the convoluted script bored me. The Catholic Church’s scandals are well known as well as the cover up. If you wish to see a great film about an Irish Catholic girl with a major ethical dilemma, see “Brooklyn” instead.

  6. I loved Spotlight, and I hated Truth (not to bring that up, since you said you wouldn’t see it). Spotlight is like the Bizarro universe counterpart to Truth. In Spotlight, the truth of the issue is the most important part, and they research everything with great vigor and precision. Truth is about going off half-cocked with bad research… and somehow being the victim because of it.

    • I think the the director of “Truth” knew what he was doing when he made the film. A “heroine” who uses fraudulent documents to attempt to discredit a president is not exactly a heroic figure. Vanderbilt should stick to making films about comic book action figures.

  7. Several years ago, part of my job training volunteers for crisis line work was to research available material ion some of the most common caller concerns for themselves or others close to them, in this case, callers with child abuse issues that had grown shamefully and painfully to dominate their lives and the lives of those around them , documentaries in particular whose content had the kind of dialog and interaction that could be used for role play — the most emotionally upsetting as well as the most effective training technique.

    After reading this post (thank you, Jack) I went to see what might have since become available online, and after fast-forwarding — you better believe it! — through five, found the one we had adapted with such amazing success for the volunteers that it is still going after , “TWIST OF FAITH.” Filmed in 2004 by the victim’s brother (backed by HBO who ran it to an academy award nomination) with a digital film and camcorder, using ambient light, (mostly inside the car with the speaker doing the driving), virtually no editing, and chopped into eight pieces, sometimes in the middle of a word, to fit into the YouTube restrictions (the very end dropped out) . . . this is no “Spotlight.” It’s basically one man’s story, a man barely holding it together as he tells it, sketchy but all the better for it, the feelings come through — then his wife’s, his mother’s (a church-supporter), others who had been through the same ordeal with the same priest, and the perpetrator himself who masks his emotion entirely as his makes his deposition for the court.

  8. Why does anyone care what the head of a criminal organization that betrayed its stated values and the trust of children thinks about the moral obligations of the United States, or anything else?

    Because that is a faulty characterisation. The Roman Catholic Church is not a criminal organisation as such, in and of itself, and certainly not in the sense that the Nazi Party was. Just as Germany then was not a criminal organisation (considered as an organisation) but one that had been co-opted and diverted, and so used criminally, so also is the Roman Catholic Church. That is, it is not a criminal organisation of its nature but one that has been polluted and fallen. Broadly similar issues have come up before; in the first millennium people asked if a corrupt priest could still validly provide the sacraments, to which the answer was finally formulated as “Holy Water can flow even through the jaws of a dead dog” (this answers one of Elizabeth I’s objections above). So also the aspirations and legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church – if any – remain despite all these failings (see also Joed68’s comments); I put “if any” because those can still be – and are – disputed on yet other grounds, just not on these.

  9. Here’s the rest of the current list, each one approaching the subject from a different angle, in varying degrees of objectivity. Taken all together, they present a cogent reason why the ethics rationalizations that “others do it too” and “it’s the same thing” fall apart at the seams of Catholicism. The last one, a clip, is considered the most “disturbing,” not because it is or should be, but because it is an intimate reenactment that leaves no breathing space between the viewer.s imagination and what’s happening on-screen. It’s the kind of thing prosecutors would dream of having to show to a jury … if it were real. As it isn’t, it’s simply prejudicial, an object lesson in learning to distance oneself from horror in order to deal with it.

    Sex Crimes and the Vatican

    Frontline HAND OF GOD

    THIS World: The Shame of the Catholic Church

    pedagogy scene from the Boys of St. Vincent

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