Tuesday, December 15, 2015


When I was in high school, my first thought of a career was not priesthood or ministry, but journalism.  I wanted to become a writer.  I seriously considered going to a university which had a nationally known journalism school.  Obviously, I decided against that path, which is why I am writing in the Pittsburgh Catholic and the bulletin of the Catholic Community in New Castle, and not for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or the Los Angeles Times.

That long-ago ambition came back to me when I went to see "Spotlight."  This movie (released in November) details the work of four investigative reporters for the Boston Globe as they pursue the story of priests who abused children in the Archdiocese of Boston.  We see their initial lack of understanding of the scope of the scandal, their frustration in interviewing victims, their editors' skepticism of the project, and their ultimate vindication.  For their work the Spotlight Team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for public service.  Every newspaper review of "Spotlight" which I have read says that director Tom McCarthy and his actors accurately and vividly portray the life of contemporary reporters in gritty detail.

Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James

But this is not just a movie about writing newspaper stories.  It is also the fact-based retelling of one important part of the largest scandal in the Catholic church in the past 100 years.  Going back decades, a few priests harmed children.  ["A few" is relative.  The John Jay report of U.S. Catholic clergy sexual abuse in 2004 noted that about 4% (4,392 clergy) of the 109,694 priests active between 1950 and 2002 were accused of abusing children under the age of  18.]  When they did, and the victims' parents complained, these priest were moved from parish to parish to avoid scrutiny.  Through the intervention of their bishops, most of these priests escaped punishment from the criminal justice system.  

"Spotlight" focuses on the Archdiocese of Boston in the years 2000-2002.  But as the final credits of the movie note, clergy abusing children was not a problem just in the Archdiocese of Boston, or just in the United States, or even just in the Catholic Church.  Sexual abuse of children is a human problem.  It is one which the leadership of the Catholic Church was painfully slow to realize, and even slower to bring into the open.

Even today, we see educational institutions (for example, the Sandusky affair at Penn State; some local school districts), other churches and religions and social service agencies still grappling with how to acknowledge the harm done by a few adult leaders, and do everything in their power to protect children.  These institutions have not learned from the hard experience of the U.S. Catholic Church.

"Spotlight" is accurate, as the Boston Globe writers dig up the story of 67 priests who repeated sexually abused children and still were in active ministry.  Their reporting caused Cardinal Bernard Law to resign as archbishops, and force major changes in every diocese of the United States.  What "Spotlight" does not tell is what has happened since 2002:  how much the dioceses and eparchies in our country have done to admit openly the wrongdoing of priests and bishops, plead for forgiveness, and attempt to bring healing to victims through counselling and symbolic monetary payments.

Cardinal Bernard Law, John Geoghan

Today, one can confidently say that in the United States there are no clergy or parish leaders in active ministry who have been accused of harming children.  Over two million Catholic church workers and volunteers have undergone "safe environment" procedures of fingerprinting, FBI and state clearances, and education in identifying possible child predators.  Shame--and $4 billion in reparations by the dioceses and religious orders of the U.S. and Canada--are our history.  Constant vigilance is our church's future.

One remark in "Spotlight" is wrong.  As the Boston reporters focus on Boston priest, one speculates that it is celibacy which causes priests to harm children.  This is false.  Most child abusers are married (whether clergy or lay).  It would take another movie to disprove the false belief that celibacy drives priests and bishops to harm young people.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, current archbishop of Boston, said "Spotlight" illustrates how the newspapers's reporting prompted the church "to deal with what was shameful and hidden."  In a review, Vatican Radio called the movie "honest" and "compelling,"" and said it helped the U.S. Catholic Church "to accept fully the sin, to admit it publicly and to pay the consequences."  I encourage adults to see this movie.  I think all parish safe environment coordinators, and all clergy, need to see it.  "Spotlight" is gripping in its storytelling, the ensemble acting (including Pittsburgher Michael Keaton) is superb, and the way it presents the horror of child abuse is restrained yet pointed.

"Spotlight" is an important movie, if you want to see a truly shameful portion of our church's past.  But it is also important to know that our church has changed as a result of the newspaper reporting of 2002.  We are more humble and chastised because of our sins.  May we never forget; may we move forward to do God's work with contrite resolve.