Tom McCarthy is the director of “Spotlight,” the Oscar-nominated account of Boston Globe journalists working to uncover the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. This interview was conducted in November 2015, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Thanks for your willingness to talk to us, Tom. America has already published a review of “Spotlight”along with a couple additional articles, all very favorable toward the film. It is an important work.
As you probably know, I was educated by the Jesuits, so I thank you for that.
You’re a Boston College alumnus, as am I.
Did you have the good fortune of knowing Father [Bill] Neenan [longtime dean and provost at Boston College]?
The first Jesuit I ever met, in fact.
That’s funny, my daughter is two and a half. A lot of times she’ll see someone, and if she likes them she’ll be like, “Hi friend,” and I always think of Father Neenan because that’s how he greeted everybody on campus.
When I was on campus, I was a member of the comedy group “Every Mother’s Nightmare”—no, “My Mother’s Fleabag”—which was a big comedy group that Amy Poehler was also a member of after I left, and we did a short film, which was basically the dark side of Father Neenan. We showed him shoplifting and running a shopping cart into a car and running away, and he did all these petty crimes across campus. I swear it was one of the biggest hits that we ever did.
He had a great sense of humor and was wonderful. That guy had a huge impact on a lot of people.
So “Spotlight” explores many themes. It is a study in the way power gets abused in a tight-knit tribe; it’s an exploration of the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church; and it’s also been called “a love letter to investigative journalism.” From your perspective what’s the film centrally about?
Possibly the greater theme of the film, which I think makes it a little more relevant today, is the idea of societal complicity and deference. Specifically, to any type of institutional or individual abuse. Which probably does circle back to journalism, because that’s why we have investigative journalists, right? To hold powerful individuals, institutions accountable. When things like this happen in society—when this type of abuse happened in the Boston archdiocese—we all have to ask ourselves, “How did it happen?”
The church in this particular scenario was the bad actor, specifically the Archdiocese of Boston, assisting in the crime, abetting it by covering it up and not doing more to prevent it happening again. I think in all tight-knit communities [when something goes wrong,] we have to ask ourselves “What did I know, what could I have done differently?” Maybe it speaks a little bit to civic responsibility, to the responsibility of citizens. I think that’s what makes the theme transcend even this particular story of institutional abuse and maybe speaks to the grander scheme of things.
Look, the response from the Catholic community by and large has been very positive, and I’m still very connected to the Catholic community by family and friends, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it. Many, especially my age and older, will say, “You know, I felt like I knew a little bit about this, I heard about this particular thing happening but I didn’t do anything.” Or, “Maybe I should have known more.” The film raises that discussion, and it’s a painful discussion to have, especially because we realize what is at stake, which is our most precious thing, which is the welfare of our children.
But I think it’s a worthwhile discussion to have. The reason I took on this project was because I felt like I knew the community, specifically the Catholic community and all the good work it does. There are a lot of good people involved. We just talked about one of our favorites, Father Neenan. But even within that community this can happen. How does it happen? My feeling is expressed in the film: That the church is an institution run by men and men are fallible. I think for that reason we all have to remain very vigilant, and that’s our responsibility. Not just to follow orders or obey commands, but also to participate in the community. That’s what made this movie compelling to me as a storyteller and as a person.
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