A Spotlight on the Catholic Church



From left: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James star in “Spotlight.” (Entertainment One)

Spotlight is an excellent movie that tells the story of the 2001 Boston Globe investigation into the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of priests accused of child sexual abuse. As a Catholic, I felt the movie is a fair telling of our story. The question for Catholics is if we will pay attention to this mirror that is being held up to us by Spotlight.

The movie’s strongest message was, “It takes a village” to allow child sexual abuse to go on. Not only was the movie even-handed in spreading blame for the crisis on that score, this statement accurately describes the very human situation in which we too frequently find ourselves—we don’t want to believe that such horrible things can happen to children. Ask any Family Court Judge—jurors are human beings and they first have to learn that atrocious things do happen to children. If, on the other hand, we believe the safety of children needs to be a societal (and ecclesial) priority, we have to overcome our reluctance to see this evil—we have to remain alert to this danger to the safety of children.

That’s why I believe it is extremely regrettable that Spotlight thus far is not popular–this is a story that needs to be heard. I really do not know what the movie is grossing, but what I have noticed is that in Catholic ministry circles I have not heard any buzz. Since seeing the movie I’ve talked to others who have seen it and others who might, and what I don’t hear is enthusiasm. I want to understand why this is–I will keep asking around. My hunch is that priests still do not embrace the lessons learned during the years of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and in the Catholic Church, if priests are not paying attention to something, that something will fail to gain traction within the Church.

If in Boston fifteen years ago it took a village of neighbors and fellow parishioners who were complicit in their silence about clergy child sexual abuse, one can argue that the village of the Church is now much more aware of this problem, and that sufficient safeguards and procedures have been put in place so that the scale of the problem could never grow to the proportions it once did.

Even so, within the Catholic Church, one fears that if we don’t pay attention to this horrific chapter of recent history, we will be repeating it. Neglect of the welfare of children and a preoccupation with other pressing matters could produce a situation in which perpetrators of child abuse will again find ways to seek powerful positions in the Church, and from there use power to perpetuate the abuse. I know I sound pessimistic; I just think we have to remain alert.

Other thoughts on Spotlight
Insider vs outsider. It was amazing to learn that significant evidence of clergy child sexual abuse was to be found in the Church’s own published directories, but that knowledge of that resource was available only to Church insiders. In this aspect, the movie is a hefty indictment of a clericalism that keeps the uninitiated Catholic multitudes away from the affairs (pun possibly intended) of the clergy. The clergy sex abuse scandal, one hopes, would have put that clericalism to rest, but one can only wonder if that is really the case. Clericalism, after all, is a power move, and those in power are frequently reluctant to relinquish it.

On the other hand, many priests are sincere about defending the power of the clerical structure. They feel the Church needs a dedicated elite. This may be the case, but some checks on power are needed as well to keep the clergy from falling into self-deception.

The scene of a Mass was for me particularly poignant. The homilist, presumably a priest, remained out of sight. The content of the homily seemed quite infantile, a paternalistic portrayal of the priest who presides over a family. In this family the priest, the father, is at once incapable of speaking about things that really matter to his flock AND he is the unquestioned authority. It gives the impression that what we Catholics do in Church is reaffirm a power structure, to the detriment of our own souls. Of course that cannot be the full story–people are in Church because of faith or because of family or because of social cohesion or for a whole host of reasons. The scene is so damning because in Catholicism we usually do let parish life be up to the priests and the priestly power structure. We are afraid that if we speak out against that power structure, the clergy will show us the door (basically to Protestantism).

I would welcome a study that understands if a correlation exists between bad homilies and bad Church polity; it would be good to understand if these two realities correlate in any way to the incidence of clergy sexual abuse.

Regarding Richard Sipe, his statement in the movie that 50% of priests are not celibate was probably a credible sociological study at a particular point in time, but who knows if it is higher or lower now. Nonetheless, from personal experience, I wholeheartedly agree with his analysis that a climate of secrecy regarding sexual acting out is found among the Catholic clergy; such a climate prevailed while I was in the ministerial priesthood through 2003. I also do not doubt his claim that he was smeared by Church authorities for his willingness to talk about these matters (I’ve heard such banter against him many times).

Missing from the movie (probably because it came later) was the response of faithful Catholics in Boston, their feelings of conflicted loyalties, the call to change that many did embrace and the bitterness with which many walked away.

Many religious orders operated in much the same way as the Boston Archdiocese at this time, even though they sometimes gained from the negative attention directed at the archbishop and the archdiocese. Even our beloved Jesuits were an example of this; a Jesuit priest was named in the movie. During the toughest years of the crisis when faithful Catholics wanted to donate to a “good” Catholic outfit that would not use their donations to pay lawyers defending pedophile priests, religious orders were seen by some as more worthy of support. The movie is correct to point out how the twin problems (abuse and cover-up) also affected the Jesuits–and other religious orders.

Spotlight‘s portrayal of Cardinal Law was even-handed: his eloquent remarks following the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were included, as was a reference to his work promoting civil rights at a Mississippi diocesan newspaper. At the same time, the movie accurately portrays Cardinal Law as a true believer in the clerical power structure, a belief that was, in fact, his undoing in Boston.

Robert A. Hurteau, Ph.D. is the interim senior director of LMU Extension, director of the Center for Religion and Spirituality, and author of A Worldwide Heart: The Life of Maryknoll Father John J. Considine.


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