The film Spotlight was my first real confrontation with the Catholic child sexual abuse crisis and subsequent cover up— my first time seeing it through the eyes of people for whom the scandal was not common knowledge for their entire adult lives.
The film has been compared many times to All the President's Men. Both films are about journalists uncovering a scandal that shatters illusions about idealized but ultimately corruptible institutions. In All the President's Men, the conspiracy ultimately has a clear villain in President Nixon. Spotlight indicts not just a conspiracy perpetrated by an institution’s leaders, but certain attitudes of the rank-and-file that made them complicit in the cover-up of sexual abuse.
Looking the Other Way
In the film's opening scene, a mother is persuaded not to press charges against the priest who had abused her child. She is told to think of all the good the Church does: she is asked to quietly excuse this incident out of gratitude for those good deeds, and in order to keep public controversy over it from distracting the faithful and inhibiting the Church's work. Throughout the film, the Church's good work is invoked whenever the reporters ask uncomfortable questions.
This argument worked. People were willing to look the other way, to write off these cases as the fault of a few bad apples. Michael Keaton's character (the journalist leading the Spotlight team) eventually realizes that he had fallen prey to this argument some years prior when he ignored an attempt to draw attention to this story by one of the lawyers who negotiated settlements between the Church and victims.
The Church in Boston under Cardinal Law would quietly move abusive priests out of parishes once parishioners began to make allegations. The families of victims, like the mother in the opening scene, are led to accept a confidential settlement that will keep their child's suffering private. This saves them all some embarrassment in the short term, but the Church, believing that these priests have been adequately treated and reformed, soon returns them to ministry. The priests abuse more children, parents complain, they’re moved again.
It was only when what had been so carefully covered up was unveiled for the whole world to see that the Church finally began to act. Spotlight shows the attitudes that lead well-meaning people to become complicit in sexual abuse. These attitudes can be found in nearly any American institution.
Many allegations have surfaced accusing the public school system of moving around teachers accused of sexual abuse. Several former child actors, including Elijah Wood in an interview earlier this year, have said that sexual abuse by talent agents is – or at least once was—relatively common, and a recent documentary about this issue saw only limited release partly because no one in Hollywood wanted to risk upsetting their colleagues by helping the film’s distribution.
With respect to adult victims, a recent report suggests that our medical system has sheltered abusers, and in the military, people who report sexual assault risk retaliation from their comrades or superiors, and rarely report being assaulted, much less see justice done.
Examination of Conscience
Whether they intended to or not, the makers of Spotlight have provided these institutions with the grounds for a much-needed examination of conscience. Many elements of these cases correspond to what happened in the Church: perpetrators enter institutions or professions that carry with them trust and credibility.
Perhaps they do so with the intention of exploiting the trust that position lends them, or perhaps they begin to entertain the thought only after they have achieved a position of trust or authority. In either case, that they have risen to a position of trust means that they have easier access not only to victims, but to people willing to help them get away with it with minimal consequences.
Well-meaning people can be caught up in these cover-ups: their loyalty can lead them to ignore the demands of justice. Normal people do not want to believe that a trusted colleague or comrade could be a rapist, and people committed to public education, medicine, show business, or an ongoing armed conflict may be afraid of the disruption to their work and their community that a full investigation and prosecution would bring.
They think of all the good their institution does, and they sweep the abuse under the nearest rug. They take any excuse to either ignore the problem or make it go away as quickly as possible— even if that means putting the perpetrator in a position to commit those same horrible crimes again. They may end up blaming the victims for coming forward and disrupting the community or institution more than they do the perpetrator for abusing the position of authority the community granted them.
Every instance of covering up abuse only makes the next cover-up easier.
Catholicism as Example and Model?
People both within and outside of these institutions have made sincere effort to draw attention to and resolve the problems that lead to repeated abuse. However, none of these institutions has been faced with their sins in the same way the Church has — for none has it been a worldwide news story that has dominated the news cycle for an extended period of time.
In some places, for example Australia, allegations of sexual abuse in institutions outside the Church have been investigated with the same vigor as those that arise within the Church, but in America, institutional cover-ups of sexual abuse are still associated almost exclusively with Catholicism.
I have heard it argued that the media focused on the sexual abuse scandal in the Church either because the Church is rightly held to a higher standard or because they spitefully wanted to tear the Church down. I propose another explanation: because the Church's failings were laid bare for all to see, our society has used the abuse crisis in the Church to explore how to address complicity in or cover-ups for sexual assault in other institutions, specifically those those institutions are so important that they cannot be totally dismantled despite their complicity in terrible crimes.
We Catholics know from our own experience how hard it is confront this complicity until it is dragged out into the light for all to see in its appalling enormity. We cannot expect that these other institutions will step forward to face up to their own failings, nor can we expect society to take us seriously if we respond to questions about our own abuse crisis by pointing at other institutions that are worse.
The best thing we can do to help these other institutions address their problems is to be a model for them— or rather, to do what we ought to be doing anyway both to redress the harm done to victims and to ensure that we do not allow more children to be abused.
The Church as Model
This means continually revisiting a number of uncomfortable conversations. It means giving victims a platform to speak and taking the time to listen to them. It means thinking seriously about what reparations the Church owes victims. It means openly discussing how the scandal occurred and regarding recurrence as a very real possibility: to think ourselves immune is to make ourselves susceptible.
When average Catholics— not just the hierarchy and not just specialized commissions— understand the crisis in detail, they can bring that understanding to bear in other institutions in which they participate. The Church can help our culture understand how to address institutional enabling of abuse both by being a model itself, and by providing all of these other institutions with individuals who understand and refuse to fall prey to the attitudes that enable sexual abuse.
The sexual abuse crisis is a particularly scandalous chapter in the history of the modern Church. Although revisiting it is embarrassing and potentially distressing, we ought to do so not only because victims still need healing and our hierarchy still needs accountability (as the resignations in the past few years of the bishops of Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Guam demonstrate), but because our society needs a model of how to respond when we find that key social institutions have enabled grave crimes.
When (and it is a question of when, not if) these institutions must face their failings, the Church’s response will be the standard by which they are measured.