Why Every Church Leader Should Watch Spotlight
January 12, 2016
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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.
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Thank you Monica for a well written article on the movie Spotlight. In BC, the Safe Church Teams work with the directive "It takes a Whole church to be a Safe Church". In the Safe Church work of the 2 classes in BC we are recommending ALL church leaders to watch this movie. You have pointed out well the reasons this is so important. It truly is the best movie/documentary style/drama available as an educational challenge to churches of all faiths. Its about ALL of us. Protestants & Catholics alike.
Faye Martin (Safe Church Team Ministry: Classis BCSE & BCNW)
Thanks, Faye - I'd love to see each congregation gathering together around this issue; we really need some momentum and unity around this issue. Thanks for your faithful work.
bless your hearts... an answer to my prayer that what is hidden in darkness be exposed! and that includes spiritual abuse/abuse of power in the CRC!
The movie helps point out the systemic nature of the problem. It's our culture that allows abuse to continue - we must not let it continue in our congregations. As a college campaign against sexual assault states, "It's on us", all of us. We must work together to change culture. The stakes are too high to be complacent.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to see our church culture reflect our belief that every person is valued as a unique image-bearer of God. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every Church leader followed in the way of Jesus, never using power for selfish gain, to control, manipulate, or harm; but instead used power as Jesus did to humbly love and build up the other (see Philippians 2). In that culture, abuse would be unthinkable.
Amen and Amen! bless your heart Bonnie... keep it up!
Thanks for posting this
Wouldn't I like to see every person in our churches see this movie or at least read your article.
As long as they do realize abuse is in every church not just this one in the movie.
Excellent point, Jill - I was disappointed in that some reviews of the movie seemed to see it as primarily about a historical period in the Catholic Church; I tried to emphasize that abuse of power within the church is an epidemic problem across denominations, but I think we need to continue to do work to expose the reality to people's minds on a regular basis.
Having recently viewed Spotlight with my pastor, I was struck once again by the horrors of abuse of power, clergy sexual and spiritual abuse and its close cousin, emotional abuse. This phenomenon is hardly a Catholic one. Researchers at Baylor have reams of statistics outlining the extent of clergy sexual abuse in protestant denominations.
As a commissioned pastor and chaplain, I have deep concern for survivors of abuse of power. The complexities of the fall-out for the victims of clergy spiritual and sexual abuse are almost impossible to heal without committed, whole-congregational support preceded by congregational education on yes, the reality of clergy abuse of power, spiritual and sexual abuse in our own CRC. Before Synod 2016 is an overture addressing this reality and the need to re-vamp church polity to effectively discipline office-bearers who cross boundaries of professional conduct. There should be zero tolerance for office bearers engaging in "affairs" (long out-dated language of the past) with adult parishioners or who abuse minors within a congregation. There is no such thing as an "affair" between a pastor and a parishioner due to the imbalance of power. It is always abuse and needs to be clearly labeled as such. With an eye to protecting, healing and preserving the lives of victims, CRC Safe Church has a major "policing" role that warrants much greater respect, recognition and authority than it currently receives. The consequences for both victims and communities following an incident of office-bearer abuse of power leave a wake of destruction including permanent loss of faith in God and the church community, deposed or suspended office bearers, loss of trust, broken and split congregations to name just a few.
Sweeping office-bearer sexual abuse under the rug should not be tolerated any more calling it for what it is...otherwise on your Marquees write: "Church"- Enter at your own risk!
Thanks for your concern, passion, and support, Kelly. I'd be interested in any resources you could point me to on clergy abuse. I would like to follow up with an article assessing clergy abuse in the Protestant world and possibly the CRC (though we may have less data on the CRC.)
Having dealt with cases and survivors from several denominations in a pastoral care and recovery role, I have discovered a wealth of research and supporting documents. Much of the research has been done in the United States among protestant denominations there, through several universities conducting research on the phenomenon of abuse of power and clergy sexual abuse. Baylor University's department of sociology did much of the research in the past two decades. In addition, several denominations undertook separate research on their own due to their own internal needs. I will be happy to forward links to the data and resources.
A follow-up article on office-bearer/clergy abuse in the Protestant Church will be a welcome read and help to many who continue to suffer in silence in the pews. Once victims feel "safe" enough, some may come forward with their stories to the right people. Publishing a helpful article with victims redemption and justice in mind is a step in this process for victims to feel "safe" enough to come forward. Please forward your e-mail or contact information and I will forward the resources.
Hi Kelly - my email is [email protected] Looking forward to seeing what resources you have!
Thanks so much Kelly for your response. This issue must not be swept under the rug, but must be faced. I'm currently on a committee that is addressing CRCNA Church Order Articles 83-84 regarding sexual misconduct by church leaders. The power inherent in the church leader position and the use/misuse of that power is a key dynamic that will be addressed. And children are not the only ones who suffer from misuse of that power. A study by Pamela Cooper-White from Columbia Theological Seminary reveals that 90-95% of victims of clergy sexual misconduct are female congregants. She goes on to say that once having disclosed their situation, survivors depend on the response of the institution or faith group for their healing. Often our response has instead created additional harm for many who have survived abuse at the hands of a church leader. We simply must do better. A book that I often recommend is:
When Pastor's Prey edited by Valli Boobal Batchelor and also
It has several authors, reviews various studies as well as includes stories from survivors. One of the primary prevention strategies noted in the book is to educate about clergy sexual misconduct as abuse of power, not a consensual affair between persons of equal power; and also to provide biblical education about the role of power and its use and abuse. Baylor School of Social Work has done many studies and also has resources regarding the use of power by church leaders; these can be found here. (http://www.baylor.edu/clergysexualmisconduct/index.php?id=67437)
Thanks again for all the great comments on Monica's good article.
When I heard about this movie, I went to see it right away... it is a very sobering film, especially for those who might not realize the extent of abuse in the Church and leaderships' patterns of cover up and that it is far more extensive than we recognize (we tend to minimize and dismiss, and think it's not that bad)... for me, it was an answer to prayer on behalf of all those who have been harmed by the Church, Catholic or Protestant. It validated what happened to them, but also exposed the abuse of power by leaders in the Church to protect themselves and the reputation of the Church at the expense of those harmed. The exact opposite of what God calls His Church to do!
the article and several of the replies refer to the fact that this is not just a Catholic problem... here's a powerful article from Boz Tchividjian stating that very thing: http://boz.religionnews.com/2015/12/07/spotlight-its-not-just-a-catholic-problem/
Over the last number of years, I have come to a beyond grievous conclusion that breaks my heart, and I believe is extremely painful to God's heart, and no denomination or congregation is exempt (this is also true in gov't and with any institution) but I am addressing the Church here: when leadership is threatened, such as sexual immorality being exposed, the response has far too often been abuse of power and that is often far more harmful than the original incident (and I would say always more harmful in the spiritual sense/realm), because it is betrayal and spiritual abuse by those in leadership, who are called to do what is right in the eyes of God. Instead of doing what is right and bringing this into the light (John 3:21), and validating the one who was violated, instead, the response by leaders is far too often, "damage control" aka sweep it under the rug, aka John 3:19-20 keeping it in the dark out of fear, which is the enemy's ways... this response breeds manipulation, intimidation (silencing), deception and further shame for those harmed, those violated, those abused. So now, it is not only physical or emotional harm, but now (at least in the Church) they have been spiritually abused as well (there are entire books on this). http://www.spiritualabuse.com/?page_id=58 and I quote... Spiritual abuse is always a power issue! EOQ
Spiritual abuse = abuse of power!
Again, the exact opposite of what the Church is called to...
and unfortunately, that's still not all of it... when this type of thing does get exposed... here's the reaction from those in the Church which again further harms those violated... http://boz.religionnews.com/2015/12/11/an-unholy-alliance-when-mob-forgiveness-meets-selective-grace/
I know, this is not stuff that we want to hear, again, it is very sobering, but the Church needs to hear it, because we are all guilty... pray about this, process it, ask God to show you His heart regarding this... He is bringing abusive behavior into the light!
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Bonhoeffer
We need to boldly address this... we cannot stick our heads in the sands, and only listen to fables and fairytales, myths that make us feel good (2 Timothy 4:3-5)... this is the truth coming into the light (SpotLIGHT), and it's time for the Church, to open our eyes and ears to the abuse we have allowed to continue by not addressing this in the light... and repent... and the longer it takes for us to acknowledge, confess and repent, the more harm that will happen and abuse be allowed to continue... I realize this is not a message that we want to hear or believe, but right now, we are guilty of the same things the Pharisees are... making the cup look pretty on the outside, when there is filth and rottenness on the inside... and no denomination, including the CRC is exempt.
I understand the Church is not perfect and this isn't 100% the case true in every situation, but we can't use these as an excuse to not address this type of behavior in the Church...
the world is doing a better job at holding leaders accountable than the Church does. Part of leadership responsibility is to bring justice to those harmed, we have significantly failed in this area. I wish I could say this is the exception rather than the rule, but when it comes to institutional leadership feeling threatened, it seems "damage control" and/or "non-disclosure" type agreements have become the rule... water gate, Catholic Church, Sovereign Grace, Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll, Bill Gothard, Pat Tillman's death cover up (US Army), human trafficking (US gov't contractors in Bosnia), etc. and countless more that have never seen the light... I recently had a friend who did the right thing, and reported abusive behavior of an elderly client by another employee at her job... she lost her job, for reporting it... bless her heart for doing the right thing! I have a friend who has experienced these patterns and been intimidated, manipulated, deceived, discredited, spiritually abused, etc. by Church leadership and continues to be shut down in addressing this pattern of behavior, and when I shared the "unholy alliance" article with my friend, the reply was, "I find myself getting mad when I read this..... Because it's EXACTLY what they did!!" ... abuse breeds so much evil! and that is the EXACT opposite of what we, His Kingdom Church, are called to do.
we're not giving up on exposing this evil in the Church! yes, it is hard, and leaders feel threatened... but it is time to bring abuse, especially spiritual abuse/abuse of power into the light... and this needs your help, your voice, your response. We cannot stay silent.
Our response starts with prayer and repentance, seeking God's heart and His ways for healing and choosing to walk in obedience to His ways... If My people, who are called by My Name, will humble themselves, pray, seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then, will I hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land. and He will call us, His Church into action as part of that healing. and He will call us into action as part of that healing.. This is my prayer for His Church...
Thanks, Bev. I agree completely. It is appalling and sad. I am hopeful that little by little eyes will be opened. Thanks for your work and support. I appreciate you referring to Boz's article: that is a great article that came to my mind as well.
Faith Trust Institute has recently come out with a multi-faith discussion guide related to the movie Spotlight. You can find it here. A free webinar on the movie, also hosted by Faith Trust will take place in April "Join us for a roundtable conversation about the movie and how it illustrates the issues of institutional and personal responsibility for preventing and responding to child abuse." Presenters: Mary Dispenza, SNAP and Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune - See more at: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/training/upcoming-webinars#sthash.Hr29bKf0.dpuf
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