Opinion & Features

A purifying scandal

The new film Spotlight contains a major surprise, says (CNS photo/Open Road Films)

Spotlight, the film about The Boston Globe’s investigation of priestly sexual abuse in Boston in 2001/2002, opened last week in London. Already a winner of various film awards, it is also nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

What might Catholics think about it? The film rings true, more or less, though it certainly overemphasises the degree to which the Globe was, during the 1990s, an ally of the Catholic Church.

To the contrary, the reality is that the Globe’s reporting was driven by two goals – to expose the corruption in the Boston archdiocese, and to take down Cardinal Bernard Law. The energy for the latter fuelled the former, so on balance I would consider it put to good purpose.

For those who followed the Boston scandal, Spotlight does not contribute any new information. It does, however, offer a major surprise in its telling of the tale. Spotlight argues that the reporters and editors of the Globe were themselves part of the problem.

“It takes a village to abuse a child,” the screenplay has the victims’ lawyer put it, and the film does insist that the Globe was part of the village that enabled the abuse to go on.

Perhaps memory fails, but that strikes me as something a scriptwriter may have concluded in 2015, but was not how the Globe saw itself in 2001.

The film is right insofar as the particular evil of sexual abuse tends to corrupt all who come in contact with it. It is far more common that sexual abuse is not reported than reported. So was the Globe part of the enabling village? I suppose it had to be, along with the police and the lawyers and even, in some occasions, the victims’ families.

Yet the degree of responsibility the film has the editors confess is unlikely to reflect what they thought at the time. The message of Spotlight is that sexual abuse is covered up by a far-reaching conspiracy of silence. That is largely right. Most sexual abuse takes place in families and both the victim and others in the family have to make a decision. Decisive action against the abuser is likely to stop the abuse, but at the cost of destroying family relationships, and perhaps even the family itself. It does not excuse, but does explain, why the more common response is simply to say nothing, perhaps hoping that ignoring the abuse will make it go away. Families dealing with alcoholism and other addictions know well the pattern. Indeed, the Church often dealt with sexual abuse in the same way that it did with alcoholic priests.

The Spotlight team’s investigation broke the conspiracy of silence. Someone from outside came in and spoke frankly about what happened. The Globe’s reporting in 2002 thus prompted a sea change in how the Catholic Church deals with sexual abuse allegations today. It was not the only factor, and not the most important factor, but it was critical.

Bishop Robert Barron has criticised Spotlight for running a long list of dioceses on the screen after the closing scene, perhaps suggesting that the sexual abuse problem is an ongoing affair the world over. I didn’t read it quite that way, taking it more as an indication that what happened in Boston was particularly evil, but not exclusively so. Barron’s point that the situation in 2015 is far different from 2002 is valid, but Spotlight only takes the story as far as the initial investigative report being published on January 6, 2002.

I remember being in Rome at the height of the scandals in the spring of 2002. Pope John Paul II summoned the American cardinals to Rome for a summit meeting on the problem. Reflecting the tenor of those intense times, the Holy Father’s address to the cardinals had a defensive tone.

Yet he did encourage them to be “confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (cf Rom 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.”

The painful, sorrowful experience of Boston and related scandals has proved, over more than a decade, to be largely purifying. As a journalist, I take pride in what Spotlight achieved, and as a priest I think the journalists did the Church a favour, though few on either side are likely to have thought so in the heat of January 2002.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine