Spotlight: A Cautionary Tale

spotlight.jpgIt’s probably too late to tell you to run right out and see Spotlight.  If you can still find it in the theater, go.  It’s good.

A few months ago, a guy came out of church and almost grabbed my by the lapels. “Have you seen Spotlight?”  I didn’t even know what Spotlight was. He must have discerned the puzzled look on my face. “That movie. It’s about the priest abuse scandal in Boston. I just don’t know what to do with it. I have no words. You have to see it.” Here’s a together guy who is at the sunset of a quite successful career in the financial services industry and he’s standing at the back of the sanctuary with tears welling up in his eyes telling me I have to see some movie.

I’m not much of a movie guy, but when a movie has that kind of endorsement, I probably need to see it. He was right. It’s a powerful story, well done.

The new managing editor of the Boston Globe encourages the Globe’s investigative team (Spotlight) to pursue a report about Roman Catholic priest who had allegedly molested children and who had been moved around from place to place. As they begin investigating that incident, they uncovered other similar incidents. Before long, the team discovers that the problem involves nearly a hundred priests and that Cardinal Law knew about them. Rather than removing the offending priests from office, the hierarchy tried to rehabilitate them and return them to service, where they repeatedly molested more children.

There is plenty in the movie to be disturbed about. Most directly, the revelation that hundreds and hundreds of children were sexually abused by members of the clergy is abhorrent. That the hierarchy knew about it and by their actions (or lack thereof) perpetuated the abuse adds unspeakable outrage.

Beyond the obvious, though, one of the themes that struck a chord with me was how complicit the various civil institutions were to the abuse. Everyone knew how deeply embedded the church was in all aspects of life in Boston and so seemed to give the church the benefit of the doubt.

I was serving as a pastor in Naples, Florida at the time that the story broke. I remember a potluck conversation with a group of parishioners; somehow the  abuse story became a topic of conversation. Someone mentioned their surprise and shock that Cardinal Law had known about the abuse and tried to keep it secret. One of the guys sitting at the table had been the CEO of a large corporation headquartered in Boston; he ran in those stratospheric social circles of the Boston elite; Cardinal Law had been a friend. His take was that Cardinal Law could not have known about the abuse. “Remember what good work the church does in Boston. Beside, the Globe is just stirring things up and trying to sell papers.”

The movie reveals how consistently the various institutions that were supposed to hold other institutions accountable turned a blind eye:  law enforcement, the criminal justice system, the corporate world; even the Globe itself ignored the story for years. Everyone seemed to know, yet no one did anything. In what for me was one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, the Spotlight editor confesses that years earlier he was sent a list of twenty pedophile priests. He wrote a story that got buried in the paper and he never followed up.

While it’s easy to point the finger at the Catholic Church for the priest abuse scandal — and there is plenty of blame to go around — it’s a cautionary tale for all of us; the accusing finger ought first to be directed inward. The movie illustrates how easy it is to ignore the truth when we’re afraid of what the truth might really be. Especially when people and institutions that we love and respect are implicated, it’s easy to excuse a “few little problems here and there” because of the good work that’s getting done. We have a hundred rationalizations: there must be more to the story; it can’t be the way be as it looks; better not to rock the boat.  The human mind is a wonderful and sometimes terrible thing.

How important it becomes community and institutional leaders to build institutions of accountability and communities where hard conversations can take place. How important it is to cultivate those practices so that when the really hard stuff comes along, we’ve done it before and we know how to do it again, even when it’s really hard. And how important it becomes for societies mediating institutions (like congregations) to be deeply embedded in their communities in such a way that rather than turning the blind eye of complicity, they can hold government, market and even other religious institutions accountable.

Spotlight was a hard movie to watch, but it’s one that I hope I don’t quickly forget.

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