“They have an agenda,” is the phrase that sticks with me most after watching Spotlight.
This thought-provoking movie portrays the story of the groundbreaking investigative journalism team that broke the Catholic Sexual Abuse scandal wide open. It shows that entrenched city officials, and pillars of the community, thwarted the investigation at every step by remaining silent. Those few lawyers and victims who dared to speak out about the sexual abuse of children by parish priests were not only ignored, they were labelled “cranks”, and their search for justice ascribed to an “agenda.”
Throughout this compelling 2015 film from director Tom McCarthy, the investigative team of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” section ask for answers surrounding an ever-expanding list of pedophile priests in Boston, and find, to their amazement, that even their most reliable sources – community leaders and personal friends alike – are strangely unwilling to supply those answers. And, yet more disturbingly, those same community leaders, golf partners, and professional contacts all echo the same reason for dismissing the questions of the accusing victims and their counsel: “These people have an agenda.”
The sad irony is that there was an agenda at play here – eventually, as we know now, it was discovered that the entire Roman Catholic Church, from the Pope on down, not just a single diocese, had developed over the years a confidential system of settling with, and then muzzling, survivors, of moving offenders to different dioceses rather than removing them from service, and of pressuring journalists, police departments and lawyers to stay silent. This meant that predatory priests had almost free rein to continue their despicable acts against innocent children – all in the name of keeping the reputation of the Mother Church intact.
But it is not just the Catholic Church, and the problem is not endemic to one particular brand of religion or even to religion itself. It is the pattern of secrecy, of shame, and of “not rocking the boat” for the sake of the church, the family, or even the nation, is endemic – to humanity, to hierarchy and especially to high-control institutions. Even in the most beloved and stable “mainstream” institutions in our culture, there are elements of undue influence and coercive control – which go unnoticed because of the institution’s otherwise often well-earned good reputation: the reason given for covering up such incidents of undue influence is too often the benefit of such institutions to the community.
The ethical and the exploitative aspects of control are often intertwined, and there are many people who depend upon organizations like the Catholic Church for the services they offer to the community. That service is not at question: I myself owe much to the generosity of a few good clergy, of a couple different denominations, who honestly did not care to convert me to their beliefs, but simply wished to help a fellow human being. I understand the need for these organizations to continue as trusted oases of charity and compassion.
But, if they are to be trusted, they should, indeed, be held accountable to such trust. Speaking personally, I would be much more comfortable trusting an institution that I knew had zero tolerance for abuse: an organization that cared about earning its reputation, rather than keeping up the appearance. Imagine how many children would have been spared if the system of silence – and tacit complicity – had never been allowed to develop.
But instead, around the world, thousands of victims were quietly paid off or hushed into silence with reassurances that it was “one bad egg”, unaware that their church, rather than removing the offender, would instead move those priests to active duty in other parishes – thus giving them a fresh pool of targets to groom into abuse. Hundreds of lawyers developed a cottage industry making private – very private – settlements between aggrieved families and the dioceses, with many cases never even reaching the justice system. Indeed, it has been claimed that several dioceses have been all but bankrupted by these settlements. Thousands of people, all working together, with millions of dollars changing hands, all to hide thousands of pedophiles – and to allow them to keep hunting victims, wolves let loose among the trusting flock. Compared to simply wanting to be heard, that really is a big agenda.
Spotlight is a must-see movie, not only for its cinematic excellence, but even more so because of its vital and timely message. At Open Minds, we are glad that so many people are finally able to speak out against the horrors of pedophilia. We strenuously support the work of the Australian Royal Commission and the UK investigations into historic abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organization and other groups.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you seen ‘Spotlight‘? Do you have a story about the covering up of ecclesiastical abuse that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!