“This was like God showing up.” That’s how one victim of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese described his family’s response when a priest came to visit. He added fatefully, “When a priest paid attention to you it was a big deal.” Unfortunately, in this case and hundreds like it, such attention was actually a way of “grooming” Catholic children for abuse.
Those stories come tumbling out in the Oscar-winning motion picture Spotlight, an account of a group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered multiple cases of clergy abuse and the efforts of certain members of the church hierarchy to cover up the practices year after year. It is a lesson in ecclesiastical evil, individual and institutional, with implications for all Christian communions.
Spotlight is the name of the Globe’s four-person research team. Lapsed Catholics all, they were charged by the paper’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) with in-depth research into accounts of clerical abuse surfacing in the Boston area. The reporters, led by Walter (Robby) Robinson (Michael Keaton), initially resisted, suggesting that it was only a case of “a bad apple” priest or two. They warned the new editor that his willingness to sue the archdiocese in order to secure church records would be political suicide in a Catholic town like Boston. And indeed it was. In one of many powerful scenes, Baron visits with Boston prelate Bernard Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who gives the Jewish editor a copy of the Catechism and tells him: “This city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” To which Baron responds that newspapers are at their best when they “stand alone.”
Ultimately, the Spotlight team digs in, documenting case after case of serial child molestation by multiple priests, most moved from parish to parish, or sent to church-based half-way houses, “protected” by church officials. Small cash settlements were provided, paid after pledges of secrecy from the families. In the end, their Pulitzer Prize winning story was released in 2002, detailing the extent of the abuse and tracing protectionist actions all the way to Cardinal Law. Forced out of his archbishopric, Law was transferred to Rome and installed as Archpriest at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, an office he holds to this day.
Many accounts of abuse came through the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests — SNAP — an organization that works diligently to bring abusers to justice, challenge the protectionist policies of the hierarchy, and secure appropriate monetary settlements for the victims. One survivor, Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), captures the force of abuse as perpetuated not simply by men but by individuals ordained to represent Jesus Christ at the altar and in the world. How do you say no to God, right?” Saviano asks, concluding, “This is not just physical abuse. It’s spiritual abuse.” And it is.
There’s plenty of blame to go around — families who refused to believe the stories put forth by their abused children; bishops and other church officials who refused to remove the clergy culprits in spite of overwhelming evidence; and newspapers (including the Globe) that failed to provide adequate investigation of abuse claims. At far too many levels, innocent children were left unprotected by the institutions most responsible for keeping them safe.
Where has all this gotten the Church? To date, Catholic dioceses in the United States have settled abuse cases at the cost of some 4 billion dollars, some claiming bankruptcy. Few of the abusive priests or their hierarchical protectors have received prison terms. In American Grace, authors David Campbell and Robert Putnam conclude, “In terms of people in the pews, the Catholic church has lost roughly one quarter of its strength over the last 35 years.” This is particularly true of “Anglo-Catholics.” They suggest that “roughly 60 percent” of those raised Catholic in the United States “are no longer practicing Catholics.” Clergy child abuse is clearly a factor in this decline.
While Spotlight received its share of criticism from Catholics, a variety of dioceses issued study guides prior to the film’s release, encouraging victims of the Church’s support and its efforts to reform policies that led to the continuation of abuse. In an essay in the National Catholic Reporter, Steven Graydanus concluded: “It would be easy for Catholics to … dismiss the film as a hatchet job, but this would not be accurate or helpful. The film reflects the perspective of the Spotlight team; it offers a fundamentally negative view of Church leadership, one that is narrowly and one-sidedly grim but undeniably based in fact. Pervading the film is a lapsed-Catholic sensibility that is rightly angry, but also laced with sadness and loss.”
Graydanus also noted studies indicating that abuse rates by priests “are no higher than among other clergy,” a bone-chilling reality check for Protestant self-righteousness on this matter. In fact, some critics insist that the more fluid polity of certain Protestant communions — Baptists being a case in point — make tracking clergy sexual abuse even more problematic. Stiffer ordination requirements (including psychological testing), thorough background checks, and attentive congregations are essential in making every attempt to safeguard “the little ones.” The church that protects sexual predators isn’t much church at all, whatever name it takes.