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With a Focus on the Role of Various Institutions
in the Cover-up, the Disclosure, and the Aftermath

SUBJECTS — U.S. 1945 - Current & the Press; Religions;

2016 Academy Award Winner - Best Motion Picture of the Year
Age: 13+; MPAA Rating -- Rated R for some language including sexual references; Drama; 2015, 128 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Description: In 2002, the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" special investigation unit published a series of articles disclosing that for decades the Boston Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church had engaged in a cover-up to protect priests who sexually abused children. Church officials did not refer the charges against these priests to law enforcement. Instead, they discouraged injured parishioners and their families from reporting the sexual abuse or filing suit. The Church settled any civil claims that were brought, insisting on confidentiality agreements. After some ineffective "treatment," the predatory priests would be sent on to other churches or given an assignment where they would have access to more unsuspecting victims.

The Worldwide Scandal: The Globe Spotlight series was the initiating event in a sex abuse cover-up scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church and tarnished other religious organizations throughout the U.S. and the world. More than 14 years have passed since the Globe's first article was published and while reforms have been made and billions of dollars paid to victims, official investigations are ongoing, and occasionally an effort to cover up clergy sex abuse still comes to light. In addition, victim advocacy groups, who have been right about this problem in the past, claim that some religious organizations although asserting they have reformed, continue to resist the changes necessary to fully protect children and women in their congregations. Among the religious institutions still subject to this criticism: the Roman Catholic Church.

Rationale for Using the Movie: Spotlight is an accurate portrayal of an important event of the 21st century that gives insight into situations in which large institutions fail in their mission and pursue unstated agendas at the expense of those they claim to serve.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will gain an understanding of the role of the Press in a free society, that even organizations with lofty goals can betray their stated purpose, that all persons (even those who claim a special relationship with the sacred) are subject to the rule of law, and that no one has the right to sexually abuse a child.

Possible Problems: Young people seeing this movie should be told that the problem of sexual abuse of children is not limited to the Catholic Church and affects institutions having nothing to do with religion. There have been sex abuse scandals in all types of organizations, although none rival the extent and the betrayal involved in the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. In addition, students should be told that SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) claims that abusive religious workers have included "nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers." While the numbers of religious workers who are sexual predators are small, their impact on their victims and on the families of their victims is very large. See discussion suggested below.

Reporters Ben Bradlee Jr., Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll, Sacha Pfeiffer, Marty Baron and Editor Walter V. Robinson



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEET: Click here for TWM's movie worksheet specifically designed for this film. Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.

See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Introduction to the Movie and Closing: Before showing the movie, tell the class that the film is extremely faithful to what actually happened. Every major factual point made by the movie and most of the minor ones, as well, are based upon the historical record and interviews with participants in the events.

After showing the movie provide the following information to the class:
Sexual abuse of children is a problem in society at large. Most perpetrators have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. In the U.S., one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. (This is based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.) In a 30 student class with as many boys as girls, that's seven or eight girls and five boys who will be victims of sexual abuse.

It turns out that religious organizations other than the Catholic Church have also had problems with sexually abusive religious workers. SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) points out that "nuns, rabbis, bishops, and Protestant ministers" have been charged with sexually abusing children in their congregations.

Sexual abuse of children is not limited to organizations affiliated with religion. There have been sex abuse scandals in secular institutions although none rival the betrayal involved in the cover-up by officials of the Catholic Church.

The Globe Spotlight series was the initiating event in a sex abuse cover-up scandal that has engulfed the Catholic Church worldwide and tainted other religious organizations as well. More than 14 years have passed since the Globe's Spotlight series first ran and while reforms have been made and billions of dollars paid to victims, official investigations are ongoing, and occasionally an effort to cover up clergy sex abuse still comes to light. In addition, victim advocacy groups, who have been right about this problem in the past, claim that some religious organizations although asserting they have reformed, continue to resist the changes necessary to fully protect children and women in their congregations. Among the religious institutions still subject to this criticism: the Roman Catholic Church.

It appears that the incidence of sexual abusers among priests is roughly the same as that of the general population, about 6%. Most abusers have many victims; some have hundreds of victims. The reason for the scandal in the Catholic Church was the cover-up. By protecting the abusive priests and keeping them in circulation, the Church hierarchy increased the number of victims.

A case can be made that the childhood sexual abuse cover-up scandal has been the worst that the Catholic Church has suffered in centuries, approaching the excesses of the inquisition, or its resistance to the advance of science, or the selling of indulgences that would allow sinners to purchase an exemption from punishment for their sins.

Applying the test of looking at actions rather than words to determine true intent, victim advocacy organizations note that despite the breathtaking scope of the cover-up and the harm suffered by thousands of children, only a few bishops or cardinals have been disciplined by the Church for failing to take action to protect children and parishioners from sexually predatory priests.
TWM recommends that teachers read the following passages to the class or in the alternative, print the following two paragraphs to distribute to students. These statements were made by Sacha Pfeiffer, a Spotlight team reporter, and Josh Stone, one of the scriptwriters. They provide a new perspective on the scandal. Ms. Pfeiffer and Mr. Stone were speaking at a 2015 conference of journalists held at the time the movie was released.
Sacha Pfeiffer: "After our stories ran, we did get occasional calls from people who would say, 'What is in the water in Boston? What is wrong with your priests?' and those are people who were not getting [the point] that this is a system problem and we now know from other reporting done around the world that when you can get into the file cabinets of your local diocese, often-times you will find this."

"Related, I got a few calls after our stories began to run in which people actually said, 'Do you guys think you are breaking some type of secret here? We always knew which priests you don't send your son away with for a ski trip for the weekend.' And what I thought was so interesting about those calls is that we learned and there truly is and this is the case with many kinds of predators — that they target certain types of people. They target weak vulnerable people. And the priests were in a unique opportunity because of their intimacy with the parish to know who were the weak vulnerable people, who were the broken homes: the single mothers; the kids struggling with sexuality issues, and they truly targeted on those people. And so the people who said they knew were the stronger families who were less likely to be targeted. Those who were the targets were often not in the know. And I think that was another real tragedy of this."

Josh Singer, one of the scriptwriters for the movie, followed-up, saying that in his research he had heard similar things. He said, "It struck me that this is a collective action problem. ... I think everyone knows that the Church was not a great actor here. ... It wasn't just the Church; there were a lot of people looking the other way because [they believed that] the Church is a good institution and why would you take down the Church? And that is a problem. And that is a collective action problem: no one wanting to go up against this good institution. ... And that's why good local journalism is so important ... [the Press is] the only check on this type of corruption." (Source of quotes: Interview with Original Globe Spotlight Team at the Online News Association Keynote Address 2015).


Discussion Questions:

After watching the film, engage the class in a discussion using the following prompts.

1.   Every action which involves other people has an ethical dimension. Those who are affected by the action are called stakeholders. Who are the stakeholders in a decision by a religious leader, such as a bishop, to cover up the fact that a priest working under his supervision has sexually abused a parishioner? For each stakeholder, describe how they were affected by the decision. Suggested Response: This list is not exclusive. Students might have additional ideas. The stakeholders and their interests include: (1) future victims of sexual abuse by the priest; their interest is in: (a) having a normal childhood undistorted by being the victim of sexual abuse; (b) experiencing a sexuality that is normal for them; and (c) not having to go through years of therapy; (2) the current victims; in addition to all the interests described in item #1, the victims have an interest in justice, including compensation for their injuries; (3) the family members of the current and future victims whose interests include having children in the family be safe from sexual predators and not having to go through years of family therapy; (4) the community of the churches attended by the future victims, the victims, and their families; the interests of the community includes the need to protect its members from injury; and (5) the public order and the rule of law; sexual abuse of children is against the law.

2.   [Note to Teachers: The following class discussion exercise relates to the same concepts as the first question on the Film Study Worksheet for this movie. Both cover a key point in the lessons to be derived from the film, and the concepts bear repetition. This exercise will also help students respond to the first suggested assignment below. Teachers should decide how to coordinate these three parts of the lesson to best suit the needs of their classes.

TWM recommends that teachers ask the following question several times, addressing it to different students in turn, until most of the relevant information is brought out. After a group or institution is named and its role in the cover-up or the aftermath is described, ask students to discuss the possible motives of the people in the group or the leaders of the institution.]

The Question:
Describe the role that an institution or group of people played in the sexual abuse cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston and how that role changed after the Globe Spotlight series came out.
Suggested Response: This is TWM's take, based on our research which has not been exhaustive. It is submitted for the purpose of providing teachers with a basis for discussion.

  • The Church: Throughout the cover-up, Church officials placed the interests of the Church itself and of the predatory priests ahead of the interests of the parishioners. Church officials violated their sacred duty to protect the children who attended religious exercises, schools, and after-school activities. Since publication of the articles, the Church has apologized, paid several billion dollars in damages, and it has instituted reforms. Cardinal law was forced to resign, but was given an important job at the Vatican in Rome. Victim advocacy organizations contend that the nationwide reforms of the Catholic Church are not sufficient to correct the problems.
    As to motivation there is no one correct answer. However, the most likely candidates are: 1) desiring to protect the Church from bad publicity; in other words, loyalty to the Church as an institution was more important to Church officials than their obligations to the children and families that attended church activities; and 2) loyalty to their fellow priests, even those who were sexual predators.
  • The Press: The Boston Globe and later other newspapers throughout the nation played a leading role in exposing the cover-up, performing the core function of the Press: making sure that the institutions and the powerful in society are honest. However, several years before the Spotlight team began its investigation, one of the lawyers who was part of the system of quietly settling claims against the Church had sent information on 20 predatory priests to the newspaper. In addition, SNAP had also sent data on sexually abusive priests to the Globe. However, the newspaper had not followed-up on the information and had not investigated the Church's institutional role in the cases. Thus, the Globe itself, like newspapers all over the country, did nothing with the information that was coming out about clergy sexual abuse of children . . . until Marty Baron became the paper's editor. In other words, until the Spotlight series, the Globe, through its inaction, was part of the problem. The same could be said of other newspapers throughout the nation.
    As to motivation the newspapers might have been afraid of the political power of the Church during the period in which they didn't follow through, or there might have been no motivation at all and the failure to act may have been due to a focus on other cases and lack of resources. Finally, inaction could be due simply to people not doing their jobs. Obviously, after the Spotlight investigation began, the motive was to do a good job and fulfill a core function of the Press as reporters and as a newspaper.
  • The Civil Justice System: This consists of the courts hearing civil cases and the lawyers who appear in those courts. Lawyers representing the victims were initially part of the problem by participating in the system by which claims were quietly settled with confidentiality agreements preventing the plaintiffs from talking publicly about the Church's actions. However, in Boston, one lawyer, Mr. Garabedian, refused to go along with the cover-up, and after initially being suspicious of the intentions of the Globe reporters, he assisted in the Spotlight investigation. After the series ran, the plaintiffs' lawyers became fully involved in obtaining compensation for victims. Defense lawyers were doing the best for their client, the Church, throughout. That is their obligation, but there is a question of whether the defense lawyers seeing the pattern should have simply resigned and not participated in the process. The rights of the Church under the attorney-client privilege (the duty of confidentiality) required the defense lawyers to keep quiet about the Church's business, so they could not have gone to the newspapers. The actions of the defense lawyer shown in the film who corroborated some of the Globe's information was a moral action but highly questionable from the standpoint of legal ethics. Also, when the Globe requested that the Court unseal records to allow the cover-up to proceed, the judge on the case agreed.
    As to motivation of the lawyers involved in representing plaintiffs, the most likely motivation to go along with the cover-up was that the did not believe they could challenge the power of the Church, and the easiest way to get money for their clients (and for themselves) was to enter into settlements with a confidentiality clause. Clearly, they should have blown the whistle on the Church, as one of them did when he sent information to the Globe. However, the newspaper failed to follow through on the lead. As for motivation after the series ran, it was to obtain justice for the injured and to recover damages from the Church, the usual role for attorneys in civil litigation. All lawyers at all times were interested in making money, a legitimate interest so long as it is consistent with the public good, which it was not in many cases while the cover-up went forward.
  • The Criminal Justice System: Like the civil justice system, many prosecutors did not see the pattern of clergy sexual abuse and most of the bishops and other Church officials who were responsible for the cover-up escaped criminal prosecution. However, it should be noted that it was difficult to bring cases against Church officials because of the statute of limitations and problems of getting the proof required for a conviction. Since the publication of the Spotlight series, a few people have been prosecuted.
    As to motivation, the best we can figure is that the prosecutors did not want to fight the political power of the Church and they did not have the resources to investigate beyond the abuse cases in which complaints against specific priests had been brought to their attention. After the articles came out, much of the Church's power was nullified, and the prosecutors could go forward if the statute of limitations had not run. There have been a few criminal prosecutions of Church officials in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and perhaps other places.
  • Advocacy Organizations: Their role, like that of the Press, is to keep the powerful people and the large institutions of our society honest. They also advocate for the injured. We have no information about how well they performed this task with respect to clergy sexual abuse.
    As to motivation it remained the same throughout, justice for the victims and reform in the Church and society so that the cover-up would not repeat itself and to reduce the incidence of clergy sex abuse.
  • Catholics who sent their children to the churches and schools at which the predatory priests worked and who suspected there were problems with some priests:
  • During the cover-up, they did nothing. After the cover-up was exposed, they divided into those who demanded change, those who defended the Church, and those who left the Church in disgust.
    As to motivation, there is no one correct response. The decision by each person was based on a mixture of motives, and some of the reasons would not apply to some of the actors. The reasons for doing nothing included: (1) they were acting on suspicion only and did not have hard proof; (2) as Josh Stone, the Scriptwriter said, "there were a lot of people looking the other way because [they thought] the Church is a 'good' institution and why would you take down the Church?"; (3) feeling powerless against the Church, particularly in Boston, a city in which the Church was immensely powerful; (4) the normalcy bias; (5) motivated blindness; and (6) simple self-interest in not wanting to get the Church angry at them, such as the family that delayed reporting abuse of two younger children because an older child had a scholarship to a Catholic high school and they were afraid to put that in jeopardy).
    These people were clearly a difficult position. First, they were operating on suspicion, and if they were wrong, they would have done a lot of damage to the reputation of an innocent person. Second, there could be retaliation against them or their children.

3.   What is the role of a priest in the Catholic Church and how does that role affect your evaluation of the abusers and the men who planned and executed the cover-up? Suggested Response: In the Catholic church, a priest has
". . . the function of guiding the community as shepherd. . . [T]he proper function of the parish priest, stems from his unique relation to Christ the Head and Shepherd. It is a function having a sacramental character. It is not entrusted to the priest by the community, but, through the Bishop, it comes to him from the Lord." ( The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community from the Catholic Church, Congregation of the Clergy, Approved by Pope John Paul II, 8/4/2002.)
The actions of the abusive priests and the Church officials who covered up their wrongdoing and moved the abusive priests from assignment to assignment had an additional level of betrayal beyond the many betrayals involved in sexual abuse by a layperson. This is because, in addition to all of the other betrayals involved in childhood sexual abuse, the betrayals by the priests and Church officials were a grave spiritual betrayal.

4.   The Spotlight reporters found that Church officials treated sexual predators as "sinners" and "forgave" them their sins. What is wrong with this attitude? Suggested Response: Forgiveness requires true repentance. There are no solid figures about how many sexual abusers of children are repeat offenders, however it is a substantial number. After a second offense, forgiveness turns to tolerance. Church officials are intelligent men. You have to then look at their own reasons for tolerating the illegal behavior. This leads to the considerations described in the suggested response to Discussion Question #2 above.

5.   What do you make of the fact that it was a Jewish editor recently hired from a Miami newspaper who assigned the Spotlight reporters to work on the story and to require that the reporters focus on the question of whether there were institutional problems that were leading to the repeated instances of clergy sexual abuse? Suggested Response: It goes to show that sometimes someone from the outside has to come in to provide perspective and to raise alarm bells about matters to which the others have become accustomed. It also has to do with the high quality of Mr. Baron's journalism. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Jewish.

6.   Why is this scandal more about a "cover-up" than it is about clergy sexual abuse? Suggested Response: There is no evidence that clergy engage in more sexual abuse than the general population. However, the cover-up was a dishonest and callous action by powerful and respected bishops who had a responsibility to protect the children and families who attended Catholic churches. They failed in that responsibility choosing instead to protect the Church and the sexual predators.

See six additional Discussion Questions in the supplemental materials for this Guide. In addition, questions 2 - 9 in the Film Study Worksheet for Spotlight can serve as discussion prompts.


Any of the discussion questions or questions 2 - 9 on the Film Study Worksheet for Spotlight can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.   Write an essay describing the various roles that several types of institutions or groups played in the sexual abuse cover-up scandal of the Roman Catholic Church and its aftermath. These include: religious institutions (in this case the Catholic Church); the Press; the civil justice system; the criminal justice system; advocacy organizations; and the Catholics who sent their children to the churches and schools at which the predatory priests worked. Describe the roles these institutions or groups played: (1) while the cover-up was in place before the Spotlight series was published and (2) after publication of the first article in the series. Develop and state a theory about what motivated the people in these institutions or groups to act in the ways that they did. Justify your theory with facts and sound reasoning. [Note to Teachers: This assignment is similar to question #1 on the Film Study Worksheet for this movie and Discussion Question #2, above.]

2. Generally a good way to discover someone's true intentions, is to look at what they have done and what they are actually doing rather than relying on what they say they are doing or will do. The Catholic Church has apologized many times for the actions of some of its priests, it has paid billons in damages, and it has instituted some reforms. However, activists for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) question whether the reforms go far enough. Research the historical record using the Internet and write an essay taking a position one way or the other on this issue.

3.   Research the history of the Catholic Church's childhood sexual abuse cover-up scandal in [Name of archdiocese in which students live or in a particular country].

4.   Research the record of Protestant [Jewish, Greek Orthodox, or some other religious denomination] religious organizations in their treatment of sexually abusive priests.


The scene in which an abusive priest wanted to talk to the Spotlight reporter to excuse his actions but was shushed up by a woman at the place where he lived really occurred, except that the priest (Rev. Ronald H. Paquin) gave a full interview. He sought to justify his actions by claiming that. "Sure, I fooled around. But I never raped anyone and I never felt gratified myself. . . ." Paquin also claimed that he had been raped by other boys and by a priest when he was a child. This points to the fact that many sexual predators, driven by their compulsions, will create excuses or rationalizations for their actions. Hitler believed he was doing the right thing when he ordered the murder of millions in the concentration camps. Stalin, too, thought he was doing the right thing when he planned and had Communist Party officials carry out policies that resulted in the deaths of some 40 million people. So, too, did American slaveholders before the Civil War justify slavery on religious and ethical grounds that are now recognized as having been obviously false. There are many other examples from day-to-day life, as well as in history of people rationalizing unconscionable and wrongful conduct. [Note: The priest's name was Rev. Ronald H. Paquin. He claims that he himself had been raped by a Catholic priest as a boy. The interview took place in his parlor and was not interrupted as shown in the movie.]

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

However, old habits die hard and even after publication of the Spotlight series in 2002, in some instances, as late as 2010 Franciscan monks in Pennsylvania still failed to report a child abuser to the police allowing him to continue to molest children for years. See, the case of Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker.

Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child and discuss what interests the Church as a large organization would have in covering up sexual abuse of predatory priests. See Suggested Response to Discussion Question #6.

Journalists involved: Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Spotlight editor), Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Martin 'Marty' Baron, Ben Bradlee, Jr., Matt Carroll, and Stephen Kurkjian.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Movies on Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Literature/U.S.; Good Will Hunting Precious.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.



Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and is scheduled to be published on April 12, 2016.

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