Sexual Abuse, Catholic Priests, and the Film, "Spotlight"
Last week I drove down to Cinetopia in Vancouver to see the critically acclaimed film Spotlight, which tells the story of the team of reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the widespread sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as the failure of those with authority to adequately address situations they were well aware of.
It was not fun to watch. It was very difficult to watch a movie about the Church I love so much portrayed so poorly. The fact that the story was true made it worse. While I expected that to be the case, I thought it was important that I should see it. More than once in the film it was said that the victims simply wanted their story heard and acknowledged. I think seeing the movie is an important part of hearing their story and acknowledging the awful abuse that occurred. It also served as a reminder to me that I need to be vigilant in protecting vulnerable people who come to our parishes, including children.
Despite the discomfort and sadness, I was impressed by the film for a number of reasons. It was a sad story, but very well told. It told the truth of the situation. It presented some terrible errors made by individual Catholics and showed the problems in the culture that existed in the Church in Boston at this time. I felt it also actually dispelled some of the misconceptions people have about the scandal in the Church and as long as these misconceptions persist many institutions, including the Church, will leave themselves vulnerable to abusers.
One misconception that the film refuted was that the sexual abuse that occurred in the Catholic Church was exclusively the fault of high ranking Church officials. The movie caused us to confront that the problem was much broader than a flawed Archbishop. In one key scene, one of the lawyers defending the victims said, “It takes a village to abuse a child.” His point was that there were many people who enabled the abuse in various ways, knowingly or unknowingly, including lay people. In fact, the Boston Globe itself was portrayed as a big part of the problem in that many victims came to them and their stories were either ignored or buried in obscure sections of the paper.
If we want to move forward as a Church and ensure vulnerable people are safe we can’t pin blame on any one group of people within the Church. If what the movie says is true, that it takes a village to abuse a child, then it is also true that it takes a village to protect a child. It is every Catholic’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment in the Church, and many of our safe environment programs in the Church are only understood in light of that truth.
The purpose of our safe environment program is to train every member of our Church who is regularly around children or vulnerable adults to recognize the behavior of potential predators. We want every predator in our area to know that our parishes and schools are full of men and women who understand how they operate and will notice if they try to commit any crimes in our presence.
Members of the Church are called to be the Light of the World. This means that we are called to be an example to others. Our conduct should elevate the way of life of everyone in society. Clearly, many in the Church were not being a good example at any point during this terrible and embarrassing scandal. So let’s start being a good example now.
Let’s respond to this in a way that benefits all of society. Being defensive about these mistakes and slinging blame on other people does not do a thing to make the world a better place. Humbly acknowledging our failures as an institution and as individuals who make up the institution and doing our part to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the Church or anywhere else is our opportunity to be the Light of the World. I hope you will say yes to this important task.
Maintaining a safe environment is an ongoing process. It requires everyone to be vigilant. The more people who are trained to recognize abuse, safer our parish and our world will be. Even if you are not around children regularly at Church, you should consider taking our class. It will not only help you to keep our church safe, but will help you keep your family safe and any place you happen to be safe. All are welcome to receive training when our sessions are available, even non parishioners and non-Catholics. If you belong to a different Church or institution that does not have training available give us a call. We will help.
Follow up: As an aside, there was some graphic dialogue in the movie so while I do recommend watching the film, I want to urge a word of caution for anyone who has suffered sexual abuse. I suspect that some of the dialogue could trigger a flashback to the abuse and make viewers who have been abused very uncomfortable. You might feel safer waiting until the film is released to home entertainment.