A team of investigative journalists are told by their new boss to follow through on complaints of sexual exploitation by a priest. They feel that it is old news, which they have already covered. But the boss insists, and their investigation begins to uncover a pattern of abuse and cover-up.
The unexpected part of this story is its depiction of slow and steady investigation, leading to an outcome which (because of people like the Spotlight team) is now familiar to us – that abuse was systemic, and widespread. About ninety priests in Boston alone.
In the first instance, the pressure to back off is subtle but real. The avuncular Bishop of Boston (Cardinal Law) advises that Boston works better when church and newspaper co-operate, and various influential Catholic laypeople suggest that there is no story to be told. It is only as the investigation gathers momentum and data, and as "locked" legal documents are made available that the scale of the problem becomes clear, and Cardinal Law resigns, to take up a prestigious post in Rome.
The strength of this movie is that it lets the exploitation speak for itself, as it portrays the investigative team as dedicated and fallible.
This is a powerful movie, showing all too clearly how, for motives which would have seemed noble at the time – the protection of the reputation of the Church, the rehabilitation of damaged and flawed priests – hundreds of young Catholics were traumatised and made to feel that they were the problem.
Because "Spotlight" avoids easy set-piece high drama, in the end it is all the more powerful, and clearly has something to say in our own context, as Cardinal George Pell has reiterated his willingness to assist the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but stopped short of declaring whether he will fly to Australia to give evidence.