by Darren Kerr, Southampton Solent University, UK.
Just a little over half way through Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2016), door-to-door investigations are taking place. Noted in the screenplay as ‘the summer victim montage’, evidence of paedophilia in the Catholic Church is building and stories of abuse victims are coming through. The rolling notes of Howard Shore’s piano score grow mezzo-forte and then fall silent as Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) ascends another set of porch steps to another house. She knocks on the door and is met by an elderly bespectacled gentleman wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt and a soft smile. She states that she is looking for Ronald Paquin (Richard O’Rourke), which solicits a welcoming ‘Yes’. Surprised by this – as if a simple answer to a simple question is less than common – she continues:
‘You’re Father Paquin?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
The structure of the brief Q&A that follows is plainly sequential and over in 75 seconds. Five questions solicit short, sincere answers, revealing a casual admission of child molestation and a declaration that he knew it was not rape as he knew the difference.
‘How would you know?’
‘I was raped.’
The final question to Paquin from Sacha – ‘Who raped you? – is interrupted by his sister Jane (Nancy E. Carroll) who demands Pfeiffer leave while Paquin is ordered back into the house. Another door is closed, once again, to the reporter. What is disclosed in the montage about abuse and impact could have reframed the whole crusade at The Boston Globe. Instead, the investigation moves forward with its story of institutionally-sanctioned child abuse, the pursuit of court-sealed documents and evidence confirming that paedophilia was known and accepted in the Catholic Church. Leaving Father Paquin behind, Sacha descends the steps, scribbling notes in her jotter, and wanders onto the street as two children whizz by on bikes and several soft notes reintroduce Shore’s piano score. Back in her editor’s office, she expresses her surprise at Paquin’s disclosure, stating that she should return and convinced he would talk further. Sacha is reassured that the Spotlight team will. But they never do.
Spotlight is a film that echoes depictions of investigative journalism rooted in 1970s US films such as The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), performing its politics through the tone of its production design while maintaining its sense of integrity through authenticity in reproducing a true story. For a UK viewer, it also resonates with current media and political scrutiny regarding widespread historical accusations of systematic child abuse in the welfare services, educational institutions and the BBC. The UK government announced in 2014 that there would be an Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). It finally commenced in February 2017 having been mired in controversy for its disorganised state, resignations of three successive Chairs and questionable ability to tackle what has emerged as an endemic and long-silenced cultural crisis. The IICSA’s investigation is concerned with the responsibility and culpability of state and non-state public bodies, focussing on how abuse took place in organisations that largely failed to address it; much like The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church. What is not asked is why abuse was known to be happening but remained unspoken about for so long.
Just prior to Pfeiffer’s door-to-door sequence in Spotlight, the Globe’s newly-appointed editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) briefs the team and rejects the suggestion that this is a human interest story about paedophile priests. Instead, the angle is to focus on how abuse was embedded, as Baron requests, in ‘practice and policy […] that this was systemic, that it came from the top down’. In a cinema of classical realism, Spotlight’s institutional exposé is driven by character and dialogue, revealing internal and external motivations needed to sustain narrative coherence. This makes the few moments we encounter Father Paquin in this story all the more interesting.
For the retired priest, and the surprising ease with which he acknowledges molestation, his brief doorstep confession echoes a routine catechism – a doctrine summarised in the form of questions and answers. In this moment, the doctrine – or, more accurately, principle of abuse – is formed: a belief that no harm or injury was done (and, of course, no atonement is therefore needed). It is further complicated by his own rape-victim status before his sister’s intervention silences him. The context in which this emerges – a montage set in a neighbourhood populated by a community that closes doors and struggles to speak – suggests how abuse remains silenced, undetected and able to continue.
In Spotlight, the knowledge of abuse is caught up in a thwarted and complex form of involuntary complicity that is insecurely rooted in the quiet denial of those who are aware. It is glimpsed in references to the silence of mothers, the anger of siblings, the embarrassment of families, the shaming of friends and the pressure from parishioners to keep quiet. It also extends to the threat facing the community, the code of police officers – ‘nobody wants to cuff a priest’ – and the distance of prosecutors. Amidst this, Father Paquin wishes to speak but it is his sister who is left the burdened gatekeeper of his transgressions.
Sociologist Sarah D. Goode’s research into adult sexual attraction to children briefly details anxieties relating to addressing and reporting abuse. These range from simply not knowing how to respond to the discovery of abuse and abusers, to the fear of being ‘held in equivalence with them’.  This association extends to fear of castigation if prosecutions are neither forthcoming nor successful. Goode boldly notes that it is easier ‘to side with abusers than to serve as effective witnesses to the abused’.  This may be, as psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman suggests, because victims ask for the burden to be shared, while perpetrators ask nothing.  Silent denial within individuals, families, groups or communities is predicated on self-preservation, which is explicable when the topic itself is repeatedly configured as a social and cultural contaminant.
By the time the Spotlight team publish their findings, the impact and significance of Father Paquin’s confession is lost as court documents are unsealed, cover-ups are exposed and victims come forward to tell their stories. However, the shared awareness of individuals, communities and institutions expose a troubling social covenant and network of cultural concerns around the paedophile that ironically mute the abuse enacted by the most widely acknowledged hate figure of modern times. Left unexplored, the wider social associations with abuse are quietly turned away from in favour of the confession and resulting revelations. This persists near the film’s close when leader of the Spotlight team Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) admits to burying a story about a list of 20 paedophile priests almost a decade ago. The information silences the team before his editor calmly commends them for their current work and consigns Robinson’s admission to history.
 Sarah D. Goode. 2010. Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children. London: Routledge, p.158.
 Ibid., p.160.
 Judith Lewis Herman cited in Goode, p.161.
Darren Kerr is Senior Lecturer and Head of Film at Southampton Solent University, UK. He is a member of the editorial board for Porn Studies, co-editor of Hard to Swallow: Hard-core Pornography on Screen (2012), Tainted Love: Screening Sexual Perversion (2017) and co-curator of Screening Sex. Darren has also written and published research on transnational horror, celebrity deaths and screen adaptations of sexual deviancy.
firstname.lastname@example.org / @xdkerr