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.