Tom McCarthy's “Spotlight”, a newsroom drama that focuses on how the Boston Globe broke a local story that was to become a global crisis for the Church, had its premiere on Thursday at the Venice Film Festival.
Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as key members of the Globe's investigations team, the film recounts the paper's pursuit of evidence of how the local Catholic hierarchy, headed by Cardinal Bernard Law, systematically and, at times, cynically, covered up for abusive priests in their midst.
By the time the Globe's team had earned their Pulitzer Prize it had become clear that the Church in the Boston area had, for years, harboured more than 70 predatory paedophiles, shuffling them from parish to parish when the rumours got too loud and acting swiftly to ensure any legal suits were settled silently and secretly.
After the story went to press in early 2002, the number of victims willing to testify to having been abused rose to a total of nearly 1,500, lifting the lid on the scale of a scourge the Church had spent decades dismissing as limited to a few rotten apples.
The revelations of what had been happening in Boston were to be repeated across much of the industrialized world, dealing a blow to the standing of the Church in places like Ireland from which it may never recover.
More than a decade later, the line from the Vatican is that lessons have been learned and new systems put in place to ensure history does not repeat itself.
McCarthy believes Pope Francis, who is due to visit the United States later his month, is sincere in his efforts to promote reform but sees more that can be done.
“I think there is awareness,” the director said. “But do I think the problem is fixed? No. Do I think the church has properly addressed it? No, not yet.”
Speaking to AFP TV, McCarthy added: “I like what Pope Francis is starting to say and how he's talking, I think he is a fascinating, interesting man and I'm hopeful, but we'll see. Time will tell.”
An authentic hero
Since becoming Pope in 2013, Francis has initiated a series of reforms related to abusive priests, including making cover-ups punishable under Church law and the appointment of an expert panel of advisors that includes some victims.
But critics say the Church retains a tendency to want to deal with the issues in-house, rather than turning abusers over to civil authorities.
And in an issue which is aired in Spotlight's nuanced script, few in the Catholic hierarchy have shown any inclination to address whether the enforced celibacy of priests might be one of the root causes of the problem.
Ruffalo, who plays the role of Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, says the film also has an important point to make about the importance of properly resourced, digging journalism, describing his quirky, driven character as an authentic hero.
“I had never played anything quite like it and I also liked how quirky he was, he's not initially who you would imagine to be a hero, as we see them in movies you know, but a hero nonetheless.”
McCarthy agrees. “These guys were operating in some pretty dark waters,” he said. “Everything they were uncovering was dark and painful, but they had to wade through it and I think I wanted our audience to experience that a little bit, like that's their job to keep asking the hard questions.
“That's the great thing that the press can do that I, as a civilian, don't want to do. I don't want to walk around and ask people about their abuse and what happened and the specifics but its important we know so we can deal with the issues.”
Stanley Tucci, who is being tipped for a possible Oscar nod for his turn as an irritable but indefatigable lawyer for some of the victims, said he hoped the film would not be seen as anti-Church.
“Its not a condemnation of Catholicism it is a condemnation of the people who abused the basic tenets of Catholicism and Christianity … and those people, unfortunately, were very high up in the Catholic church.”