I first heard about Tom McCarthy’s critically acclaimed and Academy Award-winning film Spotlight in an article published in The Boston Globe last year. I didn’t read the article that appeared on my Twitter feed and simply scrolled past. I knew it was about the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, but because it was Hollywood, I was skeptical of how the writers would portray my Church’s leaders. In recent years, the Church had been depicted in films as either corrupt, as we see in Doubt and The Da Vinci Code, or an exorcism machine. Believing that Spotlight was another product of liberal and irreligious Hollywood, I continued to ignore the film’s promotion, especially when the writers inaccurately portrayed Boston College spokesperson Jack Dunn as indifferent to the widespread sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Come awards season, however, Spotlight seemed to be everywhere and was the early favorite for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which it would go on to win. I couldn’t ignore the success of the film any longer and finally sat down to watch it. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Spotlight tells the story of the Globe’s team of writers on assignment to uncover the Archdiocese of Boston’s knowledge of decades of sexual abuse committed by one priest. Soon, they come to find that the Archdiocese and Cardinal Richard Law not only knew about this one priest, but also about the dozens of other priests who had been accused and transferred from parish to parish during their careers. As a faithful Catholic now in my fifteenth year of Catholic education, it was eye-opening, heartbreaking, and infuriating all at once.
Growing up in Catholic schools my whole life, the sex abuse scandal in the Church was rarely spoken of. I did not even know it existed until a few years ago, over a decade after the discovery made by the Globe, and even then, I dismissed it as a way for people to condemn the Church for something that it isn’t. Because I had been in the Catholic bubble my whole life and spent hours volunteering at my parish, I didn’t understand the full extent of the scandal and how many people were truly affected. I felt uncomfortable and angry when non-Catholics brought it up around me, usually in the form of jokes. I wasn’t angry that they were making fun of sexual assault, though. I was angry because they used the scandal as a way to deter me from my faith. My anger was clearly misplaced.
I am ashamed to say that for many years I dismissed the widespread clerical sexual abuse and rape of young children in the Catholic Church as a nonissue. For so long I believed that my beloved Church was constantly under attack at the hands of a secular world that strived to tear it down. I gave into the Evangelical persecution complex (yes, it’s a thing, and I’ve addressed it before), which generally affects the religious right in Middle America, and was under the impression that my Church could do no wrong, especially not facilitate a massive cover-up of child molestation and rape committed by the very priests at hundreds of parishes around the world. Admittedly, I was the one in the wrong.
As it turns out, priests, just like other child rapists, can be very despicable, evil human beings, too. Does that mean all priests are bad people? By no means. Should the priests who are evil be subject to the law like every other citizen? Of course. Did that happen? Unfortunately, no.
The only way to inspire meaningful change in a government, institution, or religion is to confront the lies and corruption head on. It’s important to recognize history for what it is and the legacy it leaves by not fostering a romanticized version of it. Spotlight is not a Pocahontas or a Pearl Harbor. By telling the story of The Boston Globe’s exposé of worldwide sex abuse and pedophilia among priests in the Catholic Church, the film furthers the dialogue on the taboo topic of sexual assault in a healthy and powerful way. For Catholics, it’s hard to watch. I shed a few tears during the film after coming to realization of how many people suffered because of the secrecy and corruption. However, in my opinion, it is the most important Catholic-focused film of all time. Spotlight not only provides a larger platform for the victims of sexual assault, but it also requires Catholics to confront a dark history in order to ensure that we never let the abuse and hierarchical cover-up happen again.