When institutions collude, the rot spreads. Lessons from ‘Spotlight’

Spotlight[Aaron Taylor] In a scene near the beginning of Spotlight – the highly-praised movie about The Boston Globe’s exposure of clerical sex abuse that comes out in UK cinemas next week – the new editor Marty Baron is invited to visit Cardinal Bernard Law. It was the then Archbishop of Boston’s complicity in concealing abuse that would be uncovered by the Globe’s reporters.

“This city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” declares the cardinal, inviting the city’s great newspaper to collaborate with its most important religious institution.

“I’m of the opinion that for a paper to best perform its function, it really needs to stand alone,” replies Baron, gently but firmly.

There is a lesson at the heart of this multi-Academy Award nominated film. Great institutions flourish when they are accountable; when they put themselves before the people they serve, the rot sets in.

The Boston Church in the 1970s-80s looks a lot like a medieval papal court, or the Church in the early years of the Franco government in Spain: a proud, “great institution”, with power and status, the centre of a network of interwoven, self-protecting interests — political and religious, civic and cultural.

Spotlight  — see previous CV Comment here — is the story of the unravelling of this nexus that co-operates to keep the truth under wraps.

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” says Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer played by Stanley Tucci who doggedly pursues justice for abuse victims.

Mark Ruffalo

Even lawyers and judges collude in keeping details of priestly abuse cases off the public record. Until Baron arrives so, too, has the newspaper. In one dramatic scene, a reporter on the investigative team is revealed to have “buried” a story about abusive priests years before.

This is a society in which many are dimly aware that something is dreadfully wrong, but look the other way.

The trigger for the Globe’s decision to investigate the Boston archdiocese was a court case involving defrocked priest John Geoghan, thought to have abused more than 130 children over 30 years during which he was moved from parish to parish by bishops who knew, at least, that there were complaints — and in many cases had heard directly about the alleged abuse.

Geoghan was eventually sent to prison for indecent assault and battery, where a fellow inmate strangled him to death.

It is difficult now to imagine how sexual exploitation of minors in such numbers could go on for so long without becoming known, just as it is difficult to imagine how Jimmy Savile – also abusing on an industrial scale during the same era in the BBC – could have been allowed to do so. In both cases, a culture of deference, and an aversion to tarnishing the reputation of individuals and the institution itself, hid the horror and let it go on.

***

Spotlight ends with the phone lines at the Globe overwhelmed with victims coming forward to tell their stories the morning after the first of its exposés –  on January 6, 2002. The Globe would go on to publish hundreds of articles on the abuse scandal in Boston over the course of that year: the stories were seldom off the front page.

But what Spotlight does not recount is what happened afterwards.

Media pressure forced the Church to confront the problem, and to render justice to abuse victims (or be held accountable to public opinion when it does not).

The media kept up the pressure on the Church to face the truth “honestly and with transparency,” said Fr. Robert Oliver, the former Promoter of Justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a priest of Boston. “Those who continued to put before us that we need to confront this problem did a service.”

Earlier this month the Archdiocese of Seattle, of its own volition, made public a list of 77 clergy deemed to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. “In early 2014 we brought in a private consultant, a former FBI agent who does this kind of work; she came in with an associate and was given full access to our files,” explained Archdiocesan spokesman Greg Magnoni. This commendable transparency would have been unthinkable 14 years ago, when the Boston Archdiocese fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the Globe knowing about even one abuser.

Admittedly, the Church’s confrontation with the truth has been far from total. Too many dioceses, for example, play legal hardball with victims in a bid to avoid paying damages, some even stooping as low as countersuing the families of abuse survivors. And, as the case of Robert Finn (the former bishop of Kansas City who received a criminal conviction for failing to report child abuse) shows, some still ignore the problem (a tribunal established by Pope Francis – see CV Comment here – aims to deal with recalcitrant bishops).

But where safeguarding procedures have been implemented and followed, they have made the Church a much safer place for children and vulnerable adults even than 14 years ago. In many places, the Church has been significantly ahead of other institutions in putting in place reforms. The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors aims to help extend those reforms across the global Church.

***

Spotlight artfully depicts the immense personal cost that telling the truth can have. All of the reporters on the investigative team grew up as Catholics in Boston, and the film shows how their work strains relationships with people they have known all their lives, who disapprove of (as they see it) airing the Church’s dirty linen in public.

Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo

Soberingly for Catholic viewers, the film shows how putting the Church’s public image before the truth ultimately ends up destroying the thing the Church exists to foster – the Christian faith.

“Even though I was a lapsed Catholic, I still considered myself a Catholic and thought that possibly, some day, I would go back to being a practicing Catholic,” says Michael Rezendes, the real-life Globe reporter played in Spotlight by Mark Ruffalo. “But after this experience, I found it impossible to do that – or even think about doing that… What we discovered was just too shattering.”

As the sordid history of the abuse scandals in Boston and elsewhere reminds us, truth telling can be painful and costly, but it is necessary. The cost of not telling the truth is in the long run much greater, and it is a cost too often borne by the most vulnerable members of our churches and communities.

[Spotlight is released in the UK on January 29. CV Comment is grateful to eOne, the film’s distributor, for review tickets. Aaron Taylor is a former resident of Boston and is CV’s admin assistant.]

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