Spotlight: Richard Jenkins as the Voice of God
The Spotlight cast boasts one of the deepest acting benches in recent memory. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams received Oscar nominations for playing two of the Boston Globe reporters who exposed decades of clerical sex abuse in 2002, but the entire ensemble — which includes Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and many others — has been justly celebrated, winning the group acting prize from the Screen Actors Guild. There’s one player, however, who hasn’t necessarily enjoyed the same attention, even though he’s an Oscar-nominated actor who plays a pivotal role in the film: Richard Jenkins.
If you don’t recall seeing Jenkins, you’re not wrong. He’s never seen, but his performance is loud and clear. Jenkins plays Richard Sipe, the ex-priest whose detailed research about sexual proclivities of Catholic clergy members helped guide the Spotlight reporters when they were still stumbling around in the dark. Some of his accusations are shocking, to the Globe reporters and the movie audience: he estimated that 6 percent of priests act out sexually with children and alleged that Boston’s esteemed Cardinal Bernard Law buried a study that raised similar questions and concerns years before. “Richard understood the culture of secrecy that was generated by the celibacy requirement that resulted in the clergy being a wonderful place for pedophiles and other abusers to hide and prey on children,” says Globe reporter Mike Rezendes, who’s portrayed by Ruffalo in the film. “He became kind of our guru for the entire project for the rest of a year and a half.”
In fact, Sipe had met face-to-face with the Globe reporters at least once, but most of their communication was via phone, which writer/director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer quickly latched on to for dramatic effect. “Tom and I referred to him almost as the Voice of God,” says Singer. “There was something really interesting about hearing these facts over the phone. That way, you get them unvarnished: there’s no person or personality attached. You can really focus on the facts. I think it makes the audience lean-in and listen.”
When the scenes were filmed, Singer himself provided the dialogue. Later, McCarthy recorded the lines for some early test screenings. But the director called on his friend Jenkins, who he’d directed to an Oscar nomination in The Visitor, to bring something special to the Voice. “Those roles are really tricky,” says McCarthy. “You’ve got to kind of know the guy and feel the guy just from his voice. I was looking for a voice that felt grounded and had a little bit of a folksy quality to it, but he also could be just smart, a voice that’s got a authoritative quality to it on some level.”
McCarthy is describing exactly what Jenkins delivered, but also Sipe himself. The 83-year-old sounds like your favorite and most content college professor after he’s settled into retirement. As is explained in the film, Sipe was trained in psychiatry by the Church to treat other priests with mental health issues, but left the clergy in 1970, married, and raised a family. The Church repeatedly dismissed him as nothing more than a disgruntled fallen priest, but his studies and conclusions about the abuse epidemic have been vindicated over time. “I’ve written several books on celibacy, and after one, [a highly-placed friend still in the priesthood] said, ‘This is important and it has to be published, but it’s lucky that the Vatican no longer castrates or burns at the stake, or you’d be in trouble.'”
Sipe had half-jokingly suggested to Singer that James Earl Jones might be able to “play” him in Spotlight, but the writers and Jenkins channeled him perfectly. Friends of Sipe who’ve seen the film have mistakenly complemented him on his performance. “They got my words [right],” Sipe says. “I was so impressed in their insistence on accuracy. They sent my wife and I the script. She objected to that one line — I think it was the editor of the Globe who said, ‘I need more authority than from some hippie priest who shacked up with a nun’ — a line which I will never live down.”
Spotlight has shed another bright light on the darkest crevices of the Roman Catholic Church, shadows that the Globe Spotlight team exposed 14 years ago. Their series of articles won the Pulitzer Prize, Cardinal Law resigned, and the reverberations from their reporting led to other investigations yielding similarly disturbing results in Catholic communities around the world. Billions were paid out to victims in settlements. Church counsels and tribunals have been formed so that such crimes and cover-ups are never repeated again. Spotlight recently screened at the Vatican for the new commission established to investigate abuse.
But real change has been slow: After last week’s Vatican screening of the film, Peter Saunders, one of two clergy abuse survivors who was appointed by Pope Francis to the commission, was placed on an involuntary leave of absence after he reportedly expressed irritation at the Church’s glacial pace for greater transparency and accountability.
“It’s 15 years now almost since we wrote our stories, and I think a lot of survivors are saying, ‘Hey, enough with the studies. Let’s have some concrete action,'” says Rezendes. “And the tribunal has yet to start holding bishops accountable. There are bishops all over the world who have covered up for abuse over and over and over again. So I think the patience of the survivor community is starting to wear pretty thin.”
The Church argues that they have responded with concrete steps. In Boston and New York, two of the biggest Roman Catholic archdioceses in the United States, the Church has instituted a zero-tolerance policy that includes criminal background checks, training and awareness classes, and more pro-active reporting of allegations. “Even if the person bringing the complaint says, ‘I don’t want this to go any further,’ we say we have to bring it to the district attorney and we do,” says Joseph Zwilling, director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York. “We make it clear that we have an obligation and we will report it ourselves. It really is a zero-tolerance policy. And we would not, will not, have not moved a priest who has an accusation of abuse to another assignment. If there is even a single substantiated incident of abuse of a minor, that individual will never be permitted to function as a priest again.”
Sipe has heard all this before, and he’s not convinced. “I said in [a speech back in 1993] something I’ll never take back: that we’re dealing only with the tip of the iceberg,” says Sipe. “If you follow [the priest abuse scandal] to its foundations, it will lead you to the highest corridors of the Vatican. I don’t think many people got that at that time. But I was right. This is the way the system operates. It has not changed — no real change.”
“It feels a little bit smoke and mirror: Hey, we’re meeting, we’re talking about things,” says McCarthy, who is thrilled and humbled Spotlight has engaged audiences and sparked debate. “We’re talking about the welfare of children, right? What greater stakes do we have to propel us into action? And there should be no feet-dragging. It should be swift. It should be definitive. And I think until I see that, I remain skeptical.”