I recently went with a friend to see Spotlight, the film that focuses on the Boston Globe’s uncovering of clergy abuse of children. I wanted to see the film for several reasons—to see how the story would be portrayed on the big screen, to see how the cast would handle the fascinating way in which Bostonians tend to speak the English language, and to see Boston itself on the big screen. For better or worse, I’m from the Greater Boston area. My daughter was actually born within the city limits.
When a film receives many glowing reviews, as Spotlight has, I can’t help but think that it probably won’t be as good as all that. In the case of this particular film, I found it to be even better. The cast was exceptional, and the story drawn in heartbreaking, but sensitive, detail.
In recent years, I’ve seen a variety of church/clergy films that I have found deeply affecting—Calvary and Philomena, especially, come to mind. These films, with Spotlight now as well, have taken up a sort of residence in my soul, sending me off to think unsettling thoughts about Christianity, the Church, and the role of clergy.
It can be all too easy to watch these films and then to sit back and think that they have little to do with me in a close way. Each of these films involves the Roman Catholic Church. I am not a Roman Catholic. I am not a priest. I am not part of a denomination that has such a complicated and deeply institutional authority structure.
Yet, I know clergy who have strayed past important boundaries. I know clergy who have taken advantage of the pastor-parishioner relationship. I know clergy who have been fool enough to think that a moment of vulnerability with a parishioner signals a different kind of relationship.
What is different, though, as I think about the story that Spotlight tells is the role of children. Of the clergy that I know, directly or indirectly, who have crossed boundaries that should not be crossed, all of those cases involve adults. Spotlight shines a light on clergy abuse of children, and the terrible ways the institution of the Church sought to protect clergy, rather than children.
In the film, the ex-priest expert who is consulted by the Spotlight team points to celibacy has a significant part of the problem. The film also suggests that at least some abusing priests were abused themselves as children—broken person passing along that brokenness to others. It’s a sickening and horrific thought, especially as we see the Church actively contributing to the problem, rather than seeking a solution.
During the course of the story that Spotlight unfolds, one of the reporters discovers that he lives just around the corner from a “rehab” house for abusing priests. He tells his own children to stay away from that house and desperately wants to tell all of the children in the neighborhood to stay away, but he can’t do that immediately. I found myself wondering: if priests were allowed to marry and to have families of their own, would they participate in a system that essentially cast a blind eye on the abuse of children? If priests had children of their own, would they be like most other parents, desperate to protect not only their own, but other children as well?
I’m no expert on pedophilia, but I suspect that there are plenty of pedophiles who have children of their own. Would the institution, though, behave differently if children were not just part of the wider sense of family, but were actually family?
I’m not sure, but I’m left with yet a renewed sense of the failure of the Church, and though not a part of the Church to which I feel directly related, still part of my faith tradition. I am deeply distressed at the behavior of the Church that so completely lost sight of what is truly important, truly at the heart of the mission of the Church, in looking out for and caring for those who are powerless, and the failures of actual individuals who believed themselves to be people of faith. As a person of faith, this is an issue that must be held in the forefront—how are we living out our faith, how well are we keeping our eye on the mission, and how well are we holding ourselves and each other accountable?