A new film, Spotlight, tells the captivating story of the Boston Globe's investigative reporting that led to the explosive news in January 2002 about the complicity of the Church in hiding the clergy sex abuse crisis.
It's a marvelous film.
Marvelous, because it is a stunningly human film, showing how even lapsed Catholics could be profoundly disturbed affected by the news that their Church, presumably left behind in childhood, was deeply involved in paying off victims, harassing victim advocates and using non-disclosure agreements to silence attorneys. The film is human also because it shows good people realizing, albeit very late, their own part to play in letting the Church get away with its crimes for decades.
Boston was a city ripe for an abuse scandal. The Irish immigrants who brought a massive influx of Roman Catholics to America in the late 1800s did so by bucking and overcoming the nativism of the locals. Sticking together with other Irish and other Catholics was a survival strategy that allowed Catholics of all stripes to gain a toehold in their new country and to flourish. But that strategy, played out for decades after it was no longer needed, set the stage for the tragic abuse of kids by an institution and a community that had been groomed to be silent about airing their own dirty laundry. The film does a great service by showing this, and by avoiding neat moral tale about a rogue institution taken on by the unsullied and pure-hearted.
I love too how the film names names. Not only of the dozens of perpetrators -- like Geoghan, Shanley and Paquin--and (face it) Bernard Law. But of the victims and their advocates, notably Phil Saviano and attorney Mitch Garabedian. The Globe staff, naturally, gets its names in lights. The Spotlight team--Walter "Robby" Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Sasha Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll-- and editors Marty Baron and Ben Bradlee, Jr play prominent parts in the drama. The Boston locations were real and recognizable: the Globe building on Columbia point, the BPL, the State House, Old City Hall and the Zakim Bridge. These were real people in a real city affected by real events. I was impressed at the degree to which the movie "kept it real," in spite of movie-making's obvious need to collapse timelines and dramatize events. A showdown in a restaurant between Saviano and Pfeiffer, for instance, dramatized a letter Saviano wrote to another journalist. Overall, the degree of verisimilitude was overwhelming.
Spotlight missed only a bit by neglecting to depict the impact that its coverage had on its readers. Ordinary Catholics like myself (who had just finished a semester at St. John's Seminary, near the archdiocesan chancery, the epicenter of the scandal) were stunned by the discovery that our Church hierarchy, for decades, had been covering up vicious crimes against children. That it had far more love and pastoral concern for its deviant fellow priests than for the thousands of kids who had been sodomized and otherwise abused by men they trusted. That the institution then spiritually raped the victims with gag orders and telling them that their experience was unique. That too many bishops and priests cared more about protecting the Church's image as the spotless Bride of Christ than in healing the victims. That so many victims, shamed and legally bound into silence, then fell into drugs, alcohol and suicide. That the millions in damages and payouts came from the hard-earned donations of every parish in the diocese. That those who had struggled to reconcile with a Church obsessed with sex, power and secrecy were newly turned off to it. That long-serving parishes, painstakingly built by local families over many decades, were then closed and their buildings sold off to pay off the Church's accumulating debt. It's an unbelievable story that reverberates to our own day. Former parishioners of Scituate's St. Frances X. Cabrini are still fighting the Archdiocese over closure of their beloved church. Spotlight might have made mention of that.
But I understand: the story was about the stone thrown into the pond, not the endlessly reverberating ripples that followed.
I'm hopeful that Spotlight brings renewed interest in this sordid chapter of the CHurch's history. Not because I want to bring down the Church. But because I want it to be purified of the putridity of bad reasoning, clericalism and anti-sexual mania that has characterized it for so long. Catholicism has so much to offer the world in terms of the drive of its membership to address issues of poverty, ignorance and disease. But when it comes to matters sexual, the Church has allowed itself to be twisted, Gollum-like, into a deformed version of its true self. The Church's "Precious," the ring on which it has settled all of its authority and thirst for power, is a corrupting vision of humanity, deprived of its essential component. Only by reforming its dismissive view of the human body can the Church be led out of the pit of sinfulness, abuse, discrimination and dishonesty onto new heights of holiness, self-respect, equality and truthfulness.
It's a huge request. And maybe an impossible one. I might not to live to see it. But granting itis the only thing that will save the Church's soul.