I could go on about the technical aspects of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's movie about a group of reporters digging into the Catholic church's cover-up of child abuse in Boston. I could speak about the master camera work and narrative pace. Maybe praise how despite multiple opportunities to do so, it never turns sappy.
I could praise how Mark Ruffalo is still a pleasure to watch, how Michael Keaton will probably get all parts requiring a gravelly-voiced boss for the next ten years, give kudos to Liev Schrieber's restraint.
I could nitpick how it doesn't follow up on some interesting characters, probably because it's not about them.
Fuck all that.
I grew up in a mostly Catholic country and went to a Catholic high-school. I did well enough – academic topics came easily to me. I was still careful on tests, making sure I reviewed everything, trying to minimize mistakes. Those grades would eventually count towards my college admission, and I wanted to make that easier.
But there was this kid. Let's call him F. He was not only brilliant but hard working. Even after I'd left a test that I was sure was easy, F. remained behind reviewing his work. We got along well, so another friend and I usually waited for him right outside the classroom. You could see how nothing else in the world existed for him other than the questions he had answered, and he wanted to be sure he squeezed every minute out of the available to review time to remove any minor mistakes.
His situation was difficult: my family wasn't well-off by any means, but I knew F.'s family struggled; I didn't know if his dad had died or just left but knew he wasn't around. It was obvious F. wanted to maximize his odds of getting a scholarship later and continue studying, as he wouldn't have been able to afford college otherwise.
Never mind college. With F.'s potential and work ethic, I was sure he'd end up in NASA.
There was a priest called Father Murillo. He was in charge of overseeing the most junior students, the 12- and 13-year-olds who just started seventh grade. I don't recall where he was originally from – he had been transferred there from a different country. He was affable, likable, a people person. Everybody loved him, and he loved everyone.
I got along with him well too. Lovely chap. Kept an open-door policy, and used to encourage kids to stop by his office after class, at any time, for anything they wanted to discuss – even after they were no longer juniors. I used to take him up on that myself when something was weighing down on me. Who better to talk to than a professional confessor?
F. used to be there more often than me. In retrospect, Murillo was probably filling in as a father figure.
I can't say quite what it was now, but midway through my third year, I noticed something off in Murillo's behavior. I couldn't put a name to it. Just a small accumulation of signals as he had been getting cozier and friendlier. It made me uncomfortable. I stopped visiting.
I transferred out of that high-school at the end of the ninth grade, for unrelated reasons, and didn't think of it anymore. I didn't really keep in touch with most of my schoolmates (never mind pre-Facebook, this was pre-mobile phones).
F. remained there.
Later the next year, I heard that Murillo had been transferred elsewhere – his missionary work with the order called. I had forgotten about those momentary misgivings by then. When his religious order brought Murillo back to the country a year or two later, to help run a Catholic bookstore, I got in touch with a few of my schoolmates and went to visit him.
F. didn't get back to us. I didn't give it much thought – it was easy to fall out of touch at the time, and I figured he'd be cramming for college admission.
In fact, I forgot about the whole thing for about four years. I was dating this girl, and her bus stop was in a not-very-nice part of the capital. I used to walk her there at night, eyes darting everywhere, all paranoid about who was hanging around.
As I was scanning the couple dozen people standing in line at her bus stop, I immediately seized on this young, sketchy-looking fellow. Alarms went on, briefly, until I realized that he was with a girl who was probably younger than me, and had a couple kids with him. Still, he looked more like a mechanic for the Hell's Angels than I was comfortable with.
I didn't process it at first when he said hi. It took an eternity to realize it was F..
I don't have a clear memory of the exchange. I was in shock. He introduced the young girl as his girlfriend, the baby she was carrying, and the maybe-1-year-old tike as his kids. We exchanged some pleasantries, I dropped my girlfriend off and shambled away.
I had no idea what had happened. Why wasn't F. in college? Hell, why wasn't he at NASA? Why did he look so sad and worn out? I called a few people who had stayed in the same high school, but they hadn't been close to F. They only knew that at some point F. had started behaving erratically, in the same year that Murillo had been transferred, and had eventually dropped out. The most insightful of them chalked it to the loss of the father figure.
I couldn't figure it out until almost a decade later, when I heard of the Catholic church's habit of shuffling around child abusers, quietly placing them in a new parish or position, not saying anything about their proclivities to anyone.
I'm still revolted by the cynicism of how the church approached the problem. Caring more about maintaining the status quo and the institution than about their stated principles. Caring more about their public image than the people they were expected to help. Sacrificing their weakest constituents to preserve their revenue stream and status.
Of course, I don't know for a fact that this was what happened here. I may be getting correlation and causality wrong. Maybe it just happens to quack like a duck and walk like a duck. But for more than a decade I've wondered what would have happened if I'd been able to name my misgivings about Murillo. If I'd been able to narrow them down, and brought them to someone's attention.
I couldn't have. The idea of any priest doing something like that was unthinkable for me. Dozens of them in a single parish? And the entire church conspiring to cover it up? I'd have first assumed they had been taken over by the Insects from Shaggai.
The people behind the Spotlight exposé had to fight for every centimeter, every bit of information that they get. It makes a compelling story, and it's well-filmed and narrated, but it goes beyond that. It's an important movie, a public service announcement masquerading as entertainment. It tells us how abusers preyed precisely on the poorest, the orphans, the lost. On those needing a father figure.
Its true value is in bringing to light the signs, the symptoms. Maybe that way others like myself, who'd have considered impossible such behavior from an institution they've been told is benevolent and infallible, will be able to spot them and act.
And yeah, it's a pretty good movie, too.
Originally published at my old blog