After Mass this past weekend, I was asked whether I was going to see “Spotlight”, the movie that chronicles the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative team of the Boston Globe and their quest to uncover the pervasive nature of the Archdiocese of Boston priest abuse crisis. Truth is: I had already seen it.
When I first heard that this movie was being made, I thought oh no… here we go… opening old wounds again. I look back on that sentiment with regret, however, and with a good measure of embarrassment. The reason is because my initial reaction was that it was us, the members of the Church, who would have to suffer through the painful reminders of what had happened here and elsewhere. I should have thought about the victims. About their pain.
I walked into the theater assuming that this might just be a Hollywood hack-job, slanted vigorously against the Church as so many prior films have been. Let’s face it, Catholics and, in particular, Catholic priests are not always shown in the most positive light. In reality, I probably wanted that to be the case as re-confronting what had happened in the Archdiocese was going to be difficult. Had the movie been so recklessly one-sided, I could have taken considerable comfort in its biased heavy-handedness. There’s nothing as effective as being able to discredit one’s foe.
But that’s not what “Spotlight” offers.
I recall being at the seminary and in formation when the Spotlight article appeared on the front page of the Globe. I remember the media trucks, the protesters, the sinking scandalous-ness of it all. As is often the case, the crime was hard enough to take but the allegations of cover-up were almost too much to bear. What did this say about the Church?
“Spotlight” showcases the efforts of newly appointed editor, Marty Baron, and the team of four reporters whose diligence brought forth the magnitude of the abuse as well as the smoking gun evidence that officials knew about it and knowingly placed pedophile priests back into parishes where the abuse recurred. It is, first and foremost, a journalism movie and, like a courtroom drama, it takes some time to build. But it is in the careful, layered reveal that we, the audience, see how they didn’t really know what they were on to until it was staring them squarely in the face.
It would have been easy for the filmmakers to ride this tale in swashbuckling fashion, where good fights against evil, where the dark and light battle like Jedi and Sith for control of the galaxy. But “Spotlight” was far more balanced, nuanced than that. The good-guy reporters were regular folk. Their work was not filled with dramatic discovery moments but rather in methodical and slow tediousness. These were no heroes but rather everyday characters drawn up into a larger quest, larger than they even understood as it played out. And as the story unfolds, it’s clear that the Globe itself shared in some of the blame as it had been given credible pieces of the puzzle years before, and done nothing about it.
The attorneys, accused of gaining from a “cottage industry” of skimming profits off of the backs of helpless victims, are shown as attempting to draw attention, without success, to the larger problem.
Cardinal Law, expressed as villain and attempting to obfuscate and duck, is shown at a Catholic Charities event where the many good works of the Archdiocese were on display.
Even one of the pedophile priests, Ronald Paquin, accused of molesting 14 boys, is shown as a pathetic victim himself.
“Spotlight” offers restraint, delivers a more balanced glimpse. And as it fades to black at the end, the audience is left breathless as the names of locations that experienced similar abuse crises are listed before the credits appear. The sheer volume of them leaves you gasping.
The movie, based on the testimony of an unseen psychotherapist expert in the film, states that 6% of priests were abusers. 6%…
I have no idea if that’s true, but if so it is a staggering number.
And sadly, it leaves the 94% of priests who followed a calling to serve, to place others before themselves, to sacrifice… back up upon their heels, challenged, disgraced by association. And that is another form of tragedy.
It’s wrong to assume that this movie is simply reopening old wounds. Those wounds have not yet healed over; they will not for generations. This changed the Church and by extension, the world.
I walked out of the theater bruised, saddened. I barely slept the entire night after. How could this have happened? Even if the double filter of the Spotlight team’s rendering coupled with the filmmakers’ attempt to elicit an emotional response from an audience clouded the truth, there is no exaggeration that could erase the simple truth that this tragedy actually took place. I’m sure there were fictional flourishes, dalliances with facts… but on the whole, the film felt adequately authentic.
It was not until I read what was broadcast from Vatican Radio that I began to feel a breathe return. This official Vatican media outlet described the movie as “powerful” and “compelling”. A commentator, not an official spokesman for the Vatican (though Vatican Radio doesn’t veer too far afield) stated that this film helped the Church to “accept fully the sin, to admit it publicly, and to pay all the consequences.”
I walked into the theater expecting to despise the Spotlight team for what they had done. But I walked out (and upon some reflection) feeling quite differently about it. The Vatican Radio commentator said it perfectly well.
Sadly, still, this crisis remains the face of our Church for some. For those who have abandoned it, the crisis provides ammunition for their decision. For those on the fence, this might be a powerful negative nudge. And for those still faithful, this is a distressing quake underfoot.
But then there are the priests, deacons, and religious who still serve. Who sacrifice. Who teach and lead. That too is the face of our Church.
There is Catholic Relief Services, an organization sponsored by the U.S. Bishops and which provides relief and hope in nearly 100 countries and which serves well over 100 million poor worldwide. That too is the face of our Church.
And there is the priest who stood in a circle with the family members of a toddler who had wandered into an aunt’s pool and drowned at a local hospital recently. In the center of the circle lie the lifeless body of the child. The priest pulled them together, prayed with them, consoled them. That too is the face of our Church.
And then there are those who are lying in hospital and nursing home beds, without visitors, without comfort. Chaplains hold those hands and are present for their suffering. That is the face of our Church.
And where there is only shadow in this world, this Church… once offered by Christ to his apostles and followers… continues on to this day.
And that is the light of our Church.
Pope Francis once said: “There can be no humility without humiliation.”
Let us pray for the victims. Theirs has been the greatest cost.