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.
Last night, I re-watched your film with two old friends of mine from Boston College. None of us grew up in Boston, yet all of us had the gut-punch reaction: “Wow, this story hits so close to home.” We knew the places depicted in the film, we knew, personally, some of the people depicted. For you, this story has to hit that much closer to home. You grew up as part of this tribe, Irish Catholic Boston. Could you talk more about that? How does your background color your shaping of this story?
I think how it really shaped it is: It's not a black and white film; it's not about one bad person. In some cases, it's about a lot of good people with the best intentions gone wrong. There is this instinct, which I feel I know pretty well, to protect the institution. And whether that's the Catholic Church, or a high school, or a university, or a newspaper, there's this tendency to circle the wagons. A lot of that comes out of the right places. A strong sense of commitment or responsibility to the people within the community.
But that shouldn't override our greater sense of what's fair and right. That's a very fine line, and it comes back to the role of journalism. When journalism is at its best, this is what it can illuminate for us. This is what it can help us to see. It's an objective eye. Because when you live in a tight-knit community, sometimes it is hard to stand back, take a look at things and assess them with a fair eye. When you lose that kind of objectivity I think bad things can happen.
I've had some distance from Boston College. I've had some distance from the Catholic community. But I still have some strong ties, a very dear friend of mine was a priest out of Chicago whom I met after I graduated from B.C. I lived in Chicago, and I lived next door to a great basilica on the West Side of Chicago. I befriended a priest who was about my age, and we just hit it off, became good friends, he ended up marrying me. He was a really pivotal person, a real connection to my faith as I grew up in my life. He passed away when he was still terribly young; it was a real loss to everyone he knew. Having a person like that in my life, we talked about the scandal, we talked about how things can go wrong, we talked about the power of bishops, we talked about the politics of the Catholic Church. So I really feel like I had some a not only professional, but also personal insight into that.
I think my job as a storyteller is to try to present this in as fair a way as possible, as gracefully as possible, acknowledging all sides of the issue. As you well know, it's a really complex and emotional issue. I think possibly what helps is that we see the issue through the eyes of the journalists who are taking on the story, who are active members of the community and who are both excited professionally by the prospects of the story but horrified ultimately by what they uncover. As you said, how close it hits to home.
Your parents were both very devout Catholics. Was it difficult for them to come to terms with you making a film critical of something so precious to them?
It was actually a very good conversation. We started talking about the scandal, and I realized it was maybe the first time they’d had an in-depth discussion about it. They're wonderful parents, they're wonderful people, they're very good Catholics. They care a lot, and I think they live their faith as opposed to just talking about it. And they were very inspirational, in terms of their faith, to their children.
But I realized they hadn't had a deep discussion, and I understood. Who wants to talk about this? It's a very difficult and painful thing to talk about, but sometimes those things are worth talking about. In doing so, we're certain to do our best to prevent it from ever happening again. I think those discussions are very important and I think my parents see that now. Sadly, my father passed away before I finished this film. [It was a] great loss—really one of the best men I've ever met.
But my mother attended the premiere, and to be honest, it was very hard for her. To some degree I think she was a little overwhelmed at first by the film, and she was torn between being my mother and wanting to be proud for me, and having to digest the film. She said, “Let me go think about this a little bit,” and went away [leaving the premiere without seeing the film]. What happened was, a number of her friends from the Catholic community, a number of friends from her parish, saw the movie.
And also, her parish priest, Father Jack, in Summit, N.J., drove into New York, because it was a limited release at that point; it was only in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. The film was sold out, so he had to wait through three showings to finally see the movie. But he did. And he had a very positive reaction. He went home and called my mother, and said, “I understand watching is painful, but it's worth seeing it, it's an important movie.” And he, in my mind, he was a great priest. He held my mother's hand throughout because my father wasn't there to do it; it’s exactly what my dad would have done. I think it speaks to all the good priests out there: it has nothing to do with him coming to New York and watching the movie, but everything to do with how he handled my mother.
My wife and I drove out to my mom’s with my kids last weekend. We went to church, I had a nice chat with Father Jack about it. It was a very important moment for me. I make movies for audiences; I made this movie every bit as much for the Catholic community as I did everybody else. Since that time my mother has gone back now to see the movie with several groups of her friends. They've gone out for lunches and dinners and talked about it, and I have received emails from them all. That means a lot. At the end of the day she's still my mom and I care a lot about her and her friends, and I'm glad that the movie hasn't proved too painful or divisive in that way.
We have this new pope, Francis, who, in many ways, appears quite reform-minded. You’ve said in previous interviews that this problem of clerical abuse “is not going away, you don't get over a problem that has existed for so long in a decade.” Does Pope Francis give you any hope? Are there reasons for optimism around this issue?
I wish my dad was alive to have seen Pope Francis. I'm very excited about him. I think he's a very forward-thinking, inclusive, progressive, reform-minded person, which is really exciting. I think his tour here in America was significant in a lot of ways. That said, he's taking over the reins of an institution that does not change very quickly. Like any leader, within his institution, he's got his work cut out for him. What remains to be seen is how much change, how much action happens under his guidance. I think you just have to wait and see.
Words are great. But we all know words are just words until we actually see change happening. I meant what I said, I don't think a problem of this weight goes away overnight. And 10 years is overnight with this particular problem because it's existed for a long time, and I think we have to remain forever vigilant that this doesn't happen to one child, ever, anywhere. One is too many, and I think he's committed to that and I think in great part the church is.
I think people on the other side, especially survivors, need to be heard. And not just their stories because I think they're pretty clear in what their needs are: more action and more transparency, and I don't think anyone would argue with that on face value. It just makes sense, right? But that's difficult for an institution like the Catholic Church. It doesn't operate with transparency, it's just not their way, and for a large part they've operated with impunity. It remains to be seen how it all plays out. I think at heart I'm an optimist, and I'm hoping for the very best.