Post Author: Sarah Moore
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” is one of the most chilling lines in Spotlight, a film based on the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper that led to the exposure of endemic child abuse in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston in 2001. The publication of the Boston investigation then provoked the uncovering of a flood of similar cases in other Roman Catholic dioceses across the United States and around the world.
In 2001, the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe began researching a series of allegations made against a single priest, but this individual story was barely the tip of the iceberg. More and more cases came to the attention of the small team of journalists working at Spotlight, and eventually they concluded that up to 6% of priests in the Boston diocese could be responsible for the abuse of a significant but unknown number of children. As the team identified and sought the stories of more and more victims, they discovered the lengths that the Church itself had gone to in order to silence and cover up the story over many, many years. Victims had not been believed, or had been given small financial settlements on the condition that they remained silent; known abuser priests had been moved from parish to parish to parish, free to abuse again and again; legal documents and key pieces of evidence were judicially sealed or mysteriously ‘lost’ from court records; most frighteningly, what becomes clear throughout the film was that people knew but did nothing. Those who attempted to speak up were silenced, ignored or simply disbelieved.
In the film, the Spotlight investigation highlights the systemic nature of the problem. The hierarchy knew, all the way up to the office and person of the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston. The people knew, but refused to believe, since priests were considered by many in their congregations as second only to God; those who were known to be abusers were described as “a few bad apples.” In one scene of the film where a journalist is interviewing one victim, the victim is asked, “What did your mother do?” The immediate answer, “My mother, she put out freaking cookies.”
Boston is portrayed in the film as being a small town where institutions and people protect their own. “This is how it happens, a guy leans on a guy, and a whole town looks the other way.” Here we confront the sin of not only a powerful institution, but also the sin of the Establishment. The system itself had to be confronted to enable anything to change.
I went to see the film aware that my own denomination, along with many others, has a story of its own in regard to this issue. None of us, in an institutional sense, can come to this film with an unblemished record.
I went to see this film on Ash Wednesday, a day in the year when Christian people traditionally reflect before God on their own sinfulness, brokenness and mortality. Spotlight raised a variety of reactions, emotional and intellectual, professional and personal. I currently serve in a regional leadership role with judicatory oversight of congregations and my colleagues, and I found myself wondering about institutional complicity in this issue. The number of cases of clerical sex abuse in my own tradition have been tiny, but I am aware that most denominations (including my own) now have rigorous policies in place to protect children, young people, and vulnerable adults.
I also found myself wondering where and how the Church continues to be complicit in systemic sin of a variety of sorts. As part of my self-reflection for Ash Wednesday, I found myself asking whether there are areas in which I, and the committees and churches I serve, am complicit in the sin of systems, either our own, or those of which we are part.
I also found myself reflecting on how I would react to this film if I had watched it from a perspective of no faith or church commitment or affiliation. The global child abuse scandal within the Roman Catholic Church has had a seismic impact on the Church around the world, with a significant number of people ceasing to attend or connect with the Church following the exposure of this issue. Other traditions, to some extent, have been tarred with the same brush with significant reputational damage occurring across the board. If this film, or knowledge of this issue, was my first contact with the church, would it dissuade me from institutional Christianity? Probably; in fact, almost certainly. Can the Church fix this? People trusted the Church with their children, and that trust was broken over decades, if not centuries. While the Church can learn from this horrific chapter in all of our history, we cannot ‘fix’ it. We can do everything we can to keep everyone safe. We must keep examining ourselves for our systemic sin. Who do we silence? Where do we cover over acts of injustice with comments about ‘good people’ and ‘how we do things here’? A village, after all, is a type of institution. Where do the priorities of our village, the institutional churches we serve, truly lie?
Sarah Moore is a United Reformed Church minister currently serving as President of the Cumbria Area of the North Western Synod of the United Reformed Church. She lives in Kendal, Cumbria, England.
Image by: Tony Fischer
Used with permission