In late 2015, Hollywood released the movie Spotlight which chronicles the story of four reporters from the Boston Globe, who in the summer of 2002 wrote the story that broke open the scandal of sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The movie has an all-star cast, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton among others. I was intrigued by the movie as I began to hear about it because the promotional material stressed that the focus of the movie was on the work the reporters did in connecting the dots and digging deep to find out how widespread the abuse was and how widespread the ensuing cover-up. Rather than focusing on the victims or on the church, it tells the story of investigative reporting.
In anticipation of its release, and an expected wide-scale conversation about the movie, about how the Church has responded and how the church is caring for victims, a team of us went to see the movie the first weekend of its release. I found the movie to be well-done, gut wrenching, and true to its stated purpose. My only surprise was how little reaction there was to it and how few people called or wrote to the archdiocese. I wondered if, for a lot of people, 2002 was a long time ago, or the story was a little “wonky” as it focused on the mechanics of investigative journalism or if we have really never stopped dealing with the scandal and so it is one more piece in the telling of the story. I think the movie was overlooked—until now—when it is widely thought to be a contender at the Academy Awards, and so it is back in the theatre and, if my friends are any indication, very much on the minds of people.
The scandal of the abuse of youth and young adults by priests is one of the darkest and most sinful periods in the history of the church. The abuse happened not just in Boston or the U.S., but all over the world, and, as the movie highlights, the cover-up was just as widespread. The movie does a good job of showing how powerful the church was in the life of the city and how that power was exercised. It does a good job of showing how even the Boston Globe failed to see the real story and how some people at the Globe buried the story at different points through the years. We don’t know why, but we see that there were attorneys and publicists and other influential lay people who either didn’t know the enormity of the problem or chose not to know, and did not act in the best interest of the victims or the church. We learn that there was not only a failure within the leadership of the church but also a failure of lay Catholics to step up and call the church to act.
As the spotlight returns to this period of the Church, we have the chance to once again apologize to every and all victims. We have the chance to remind people that anyone who has been a victim or believes a priest or any church employee to be a predator can come forward and call the diocesan office for Child Protection and report their concern. Every call is investigated and all cases that warrant the involvement of the civil authorities get reported to them. While we can never tire of taking responsibility for what happened and doing all that we can to help every victim and their family to move toward healing and hope, we also cannot be afraid to say that in the darkness of sin, grace can be found.
With all of the protections in place, for which, speaking for my diocese, every parish and diocesan agencies must be in 100 % compliance, today, there is no safer place for a child than in a parish or church sponsored program. Every adult (priests, seminarians and lay women and men) who has any level of interaction with children complete training, regular background checks and finger printing. Every child receives training to know what a safe environment is and what it isn’t. Every child is told to whom they can go to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. While none of this can change the past, it can contribute to a future that is vastly different for our children. At present, very few educational institutions or youth programs have put in place the kind of protection the church has implemented. Hopefully, the church can share best practices so that kids are safe in all corners of our communities.
If you find yourself in a conversation about the movie, take the time to support the changes the Church has made, to encourage people not to be afraid to trust the priests they meet as men who humbly acknowledge the pain and disgrace of the scandal and desire to be part of the solution,
Particularly, in this Year of Mercy, we remember that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, and we continue to pray for God’s healing love for all victims of abuse and for the continued renewal of the Church and her leaders.
Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington. She will be team-teaching Being Christian in Rome – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in the SJC Theology Rome Program, July 18-25, 2016.