Spotlight, depicting the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team on their journey to the 2002 exposé of the Boston archdiocese’s cover-up of clergy sexual abuse, is a devastating film. Each person going into this movie knows how the story ends – with the exposé that rocked the world and forever altered, in part, the Catholic Church’s ability to sweep child abuse under the rug. And yet, sitting in that theatre, each person enters the story in a way we never had before. Part of what makes the film so effective is that the Spotlight reporters are not heroes or saints. They are ordinary people, looking for a good story, who find themselves thrust into the reality of systemic, deep-rooted evil far beyond their power to even comprehend. Despite their stunned shock, they move forward amidst widespread discouragement, sensing they are facing a reality too real to ignore, one in which they must rise beyond themselves to do justice to the wounded.
The films draws us into the reporters’ journey of progressive horror, as the Spotlight team’s paradigm shifts: from suspicions of a surprisingly high number of predatorial priests in Boston, to the revelation of a shockingly high estimate, to the final, stunningly high number of perpetrators and survivors unveiled at the close of the film. Like the Spotlight reporters, the film draws us into a world of ever-increasing horror, honors the courage and dignity of abuse survivors, and brings a growing awareness that everyone is complicit in enabling a culture of abuse. Skillfully woven in are core questions of faith, the power of spiritual authority, and the church’s ability to give or take life to their communities. As I was watching, I kept thinking, “This. This is what every abuse survivor wants the church to understand about abuse.”
Betrayal is at the heart of the film. The betrayal is not an abstract betrayal, nor an individual betrayal of victims, but a betrayal of the very foundations of faith. “It’s spiritual abuse because it robs you of your faith,” one survivor states. At one point, an abuse survivor is asked how her mother reacted to the Catholic church’s request for them to be silent about the abuse. “My mom? She gave them cookies,” he replies. Near the end of the investigation, Mike, a reporter on the team, recalls a Catholic childhood, drifting away from the church, and, with tears in his eyes, his dying faith, “I always thought I’d come back. But now…” This dynamic is perhaps captured most powerfully toward the end when reporter Sacha’s grandmother, a devout Catholic who attends church three times a week, weeps as she reads the atrocities her beloved church has been complicit in perpetuating. Watching the film brings each of us face to face with our own wounds from betrayal by the church.
Part of the film’s effectiveness is its compelling portrayal of the reality that abuse is part of a societal fabric, one in which nearly everyone who is not a victim is complicit in enabling abuse. Those most vulnerable are forever wounded by our own sins: sins of looking the other way, refusing to ask too many questions, accepting inaction. “I think we gotta start ignoring everybody on this,” Mike states as one person after another discourages the team from pursuing the truth. When Sacha asks a survivor if the Church pressured her to keep silent about her abuse, she responds, “The church…not just the church. Everyone: parishioners…my friends.” In the words of reporter Mitchell: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
It would be a mistake for a Protestant to watch this film primarily to relive a period of the Catholic Church’s history and leave the theatre feeling good about how far we’ve come. The film itself refuses to allow us this experience, making it painfully clear that despite the good the Globe’s work did, the cover-ups and silencing continue in some measure to this day. It would be equally a mistake to dismiss this as a Catholic problem. The statistics of abuse, clergy and otherwise, show no signs of being lower statistically in the Protestant world. We also possess a wealth of data indicating the widespread prevalence of abuse more broadly: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men sexually abused. No data suggests lower rates in the church; in fact, we know of the tendency of abusers to prey in faith communities – 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as religious. So we have at least a 20.5% rate of sexual abuse survivors.* To state the obvious: that statistic is only sexual abuse -- what percentage of the walking wounded fill our pews if we consider the range of forms of abuse, including emotional, physical, and neglect? Yet few of us even dare to talk about the reality, much less take action for justice and safety. We continue to, on a regular basis, marginalize the voices of survivors. We stigmatize the struggles they face while failing to honor their courage. We fail to lament the abuse in our congregations and pressure victims to forgive, regardless of the perpetrator’s repentance – pretending our desire for their forgiveness is for their sake, and not out of our own desire to avoid facing the unspeakable.
The collective passive or denying stance of the church is puzzling in the face of undeniable, heartbreaking reality – as puzzling as the corrupt behavior of those who covered up the clergy abuse in the Catholic church. Trauma expert Judith Herman describes this consistent tendency for society to forget all it knows about abuse as “episodic amnesia” – a society who cannot handle “too much reality” resorts to “denial, repression, and dissociation.”* Clergy abuse was nothing new before the 2002 exposé; what made the Spotlight team’s work so effective was their ability to unveil the systemic issues that supported a culture of pandemic abuse. By implication, the film reminds the church it will take the committed effort and support of an entire community to both support abuse survivors and prevent abuse. Spotlight reminds us the cost of anything less is just too high.
*Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997, 1-2.