I’ve only seen one of the films nominated for an Oscar this season—Spotlight—and it has haunted me. (Fair warning: spoilers ahead, though the film is well worth viewing even knowing how it unfolds.)
This gripping film recounts the true story of Boston Globe editor Marty Baron’s decision to assign the newspaper’s “Spotlight” team of investigative reporters to examine sex abuse allegations against Catholic priest John Geoghan. The reporters’ interviews of victims and efforts to unseal sensitive court documents eventually led them to what we now know was an extensive cover-up of abuse by the Roman Catholic Church over many years involving not just Geoghan but thousands of priests. (The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service based upon this reporting.) The film features brilliant acting by Michael Keaton as editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, and Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes, among others. Most intriguing to me, however, was the role of lawyers in the film, including Erik MacLeish, who represented numerous abuse victims in securing private settlements, and Jim Sullivan, who defended priests accused of abuse and was a long-time friend of Robby Robinson.
The film raises significant questions about legal ethics and personal morality. How do we reconcile the sanctity of confidentiality and attorney-client privilege against the moral dilemma of knowledge about a client’s outrageous acts? It is one thing to maintain confidentiality in representing someone accused of an isolated crime that occurred in the past, but what if a lawyer has information that could prevent hideous child abuse from occurring in the future?
Robinson repeatedly asks Sullivan to become a confidential source by confirming the names of child molesting priests as the Globe’s list of suspects grows. Sullivan struggles—the film captures this beautifully and painfully—then finally relents, confirming dozens of names on the Globe’s list.
MacLeish obtains settlements for hundreds of victims, all subject to strict confidentiality agreements. His work is critiqued by the reporters as essentially being a cottage industry at the expense of future victims, because the settlements prevent the abuse from becoming public. MacLeish maintains that the short statute of limitations and statutory cap on recovery made settlement the best possible outcome for his clients. Perhaps that is true for the individuals he represented; but what about the children who continued to be abused? Does settlement in a situation like this achieve justice or undermine it? (Read Owen Fiss’s Against Settlement for more on that topic.) Here again, MacLeish faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to reveal confidential information. We learn late in the film that he sent information to the Globe many years before the Spotlight investigation occurred; the Globe failed to follow up on it.
What is the role of lawyers in a massive abuse scandal of this nature? Should there be an exception to client confidentiality protections or attorney-client privilege? Does Model Rule 1.6’s exception for breaching confidentiality to prevent an act that is reasonably certain to result in substantial bodily harm apply here?
This article from the Globe’s Spotlight team reporting on the abuse scandal in 2002 offers some answers while at the same time raising even more questions: