Spotlight (2015), directed by Tom McCarthy

spotlight posterDuring the course of many years of serving as a school principal, there have been occasions when I had to publicize bad stuff within the school community. It was something I never liked to do; but when it came to matters of health and safety, I felt I had to go public if that is what it took to protect other students.

I recall one incident involving a student caught for drug usage in high school. It was grounds for expulsion, a grave infraction that might prevent the student from attending another Jewish school and thus not have the opportunity to learn more about his faith. It was a stressful time of decision-making, but I expelled the student to protect the rest of the students from potential harm and to reassure parents that the school’s “no tolerance” for drugs policy was taken seriously.

Discovering and publicizing someone for inappropriate behavior is at the core of Spotlight, a visceral narrative about a four-person cadre of Boston Globe reporters who decide to investigate charges of abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. The year is 2001, and the Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron. At an early meeting between Baron and the staff, Baron brings up the case of a Catholic priest who molested many children over a period of 30 years. A lawyer for the victims, Mitch Garabedian, argues that Cardinal Law, the senior cleric in the city, knew about the molestations but did nothing about it. He even cites the existence of sealed documents that prove the Church’s negligence. Baron suggests taking the Church to court to compel the unsealing of the documents.

As the Spotlight team does more research, they discover that there is a three-year statute of limitations in molestation cases, which does not allow for a thorough investigation of abuse claims. Moreover, the children feel shame and guilt and do not want their peers to know of the abuse. Furthermore, the settlements for damage are capped at $20,000, a miniscule sum in light of the emotional and psychological damage done.

The Spotlight team is persistent and eventually they get access to victims, whom they interview. More investigation reveals that the problem is systemic and not limited to Boston clergy. Clergy who molested children did not lose their jobs. Instead, they were sent to other parishes where the same abusive behavior re-emerged. In the church employment directories, priests who moved from parish to parish were simply designated as on “sick leave” or “absent on leave.” There was no mention of the egregious, corrupt conduct, which prompted their relocation.

At the end of the day, many suffered because of this conspiracy of silence. Few people wanted to tarnish the image of the church, and so there were many victims. As Mitch Garabedian, one of the victim’s lawyers said, “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Jewish law has a clear approach to determining whether one can reveal confidential information. It is based on the passage “do not stand by while your brother’s blood is being shed (Leviticus 19:16).” This commandment obligates one to shield another person from harm. If revealing private information protects other people by securing their health and safety, then it is permitted.

Interestingly, this commandment comes directly after the prohibition against talebearing. The commentators explain that telling tales about other people is tantamount to shedding their blood since serious damage can be done by disclosing private information. Therefore, the spreading of confidential information is, for the most part, only permitted when the goal is to prevent harm to others.

Spotlight, a film that shines a light on abuses in the clergy, has a larger message; namely, that we have a responsibility to publicize wrongdoing that affects our community in order to protect its citizens from harm.

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