I watched the film “Spotlight” a few weeks ago with a heavy heart. I like a good thriller and usually enjoy those that involve investigative journalism, but the subject matter of this particular film, the exposition of the child abuse scandal in the Church by the Boston Globe, so profoundly upset me that I could not bear to go to see it at the cinema. I thought at one point that I would not watch it at all. However, I found myself a few weeks ago, on Film Friday, putting it on via my daughter’s Netflix account.
While I enjoyed the investigative journalism aspect of the film, I am deeply affected by it’s content. I wrote in a previous post about the silence of abuse, and I was in part, dwelling on my response to the film, and to the crisis this issue has raised, especially, but not solely, in the Catholic Church. There were a few points that the film brought out for me. The film is based on a true story and I am reflecting on the story in the film. I am currently unaware of exactly where it digresses from real events, although I am aware that Richard Sipe, who suggested to the journalists the figure of six percent, is a real person and his credentials are real.
The first is that the editor, rather than pursue particular individual priests regarding their sexual abuse of children, insisted that the Spotlight journalists look for something more systemic that allowed the abuse to be perpetuated, rather than terminated. To me, this insistence showed great insight, and his, and their, refusal to give in to the voices and threats to silence them, not only showed great courage, but also demonstrated the ways in which the enemy works, as described by Ignatius in the exercises: the tantrum of the spoiled child, the secret whispering of the false lover, even as the general, circling the castle, looking for the weaknesses in the journalists in order to silence them. And the responses of the Spotlight team, to stand strong, and together, to speak out and refuse to have their weaknesses exploited, even as it meant exposing their own failings in not speaking out earlier when they had the information, illustrates how God is able to use us to work against evil in the world.
I have been a teacher long enough in the UK to have been in the system before the current safeguarding practices were in place, and to have seen their evolution from the first introduction of the CRB check and List 99, to the now mandatory DBS check before anyone can work alone with children in a school: from ensuring that all areas where we might meet with a child have glass windows to be visible to people outside of the room, to the mandatory annual safeguarding training, with updates, at the beginning of every school year, for which we have to sign a declaration that we have attended and read the necessary paperwork. I find it excruciating, especially the part where we go over the different types of abuse and the signs that may go with them. Please do not get me wrong here, it is horrifying to hear of all the ways that adults can, and do, hurt and permanently damage children in our care, but I absolutely understand the necessity of these procedures and see that they have altered the culture in the education system to the point where it has become ingrained that safeguarding of children is the responsibility of everyone, and that even the slightest doubt or suspicion is reported to a safeguarding lead, who, if they do not already have a big picture, will raise the question and potentially start the investigation. It is enough to say to them:
Something doesn’t feel right here.
I also see measures in my parish and in other parishes in my diocese: the sacristy door is open when the priest and the altar servers are getting ready for mass, and has glass in it to see into the room, the priest participates in safeguarding training, there is a designated lay person as a safeguarding lead, and their contact details are there, for all to see, on a notice board as you go into the church. Schools and churches are reeling from child abuse disclosures, and the systems which hid and allowed them to continue are being changed. My heart is broken for every single person who suffered from this abuse and complete betrayal of trust, and it is something that we can never makes amends for, we can only feel anger and profound sorrow. The challenge for all of us in the Church is to speak out and make sure it stops. Pope Francis acknowledged as much when he opened the summit on child abuse in February 2019.
The weight of pastoral and church responsibility weighs on our meeting and forces us to discuss in a synodal, deep and sincere way about how to face this evil that afflicts the church and humanity,” Pope Francis said. Catholics were “not looking for simple and obvious condemnation, but concrete and effective measures to put into place.Pope Francis at the summit on child abuse in Rome, February 2019.
I am not privy to how the BBC has addressed similar scandal within that particular organisation, so I will leave it here.
The second point that the film made was the statistic of six percent of priests were likely to be acting out sexually in this way. While in other contexts it seems like a small proportion, when it was translated unto actual numbers, it was a huge number of priests (around ninety in the Boston scenario) and a larger number of victims, where even one is too many. I remember a conversation with my mum soon after the scandal broke, and she had been talking to her local parish priest who had said that he felt ashamed to walk down the street wearing his dog collar because of it. While not forgetting the six percent, perhaps it is also worth remembering that around ninety four percent of priests are not paedophiles.
The third point, also made in the telephone call with Richard Sipe, was that clericalism provided a respectable hiding place for people with unacceptable tendencies. Perhaps there is an element of thinking that submitting to an external control will keep these urges dormant. Such an undertaking has echoes of the tenth addition of the exercises on penance, where here, a decision to live a life of abstention is made using reason, the second power of the soul, based on understanding of one’s own particular pattern of sin. If sincere and conscious it can be considered to be an exterior penance. However, to live it requires interior movement, for there to be a sincere desire to refrain from the offending behaviour, and also the grace of God. In the tenth addition of The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius gives a sincere desire for grace as one of the reasons we undertake penance, and it is not something we earn; it is a grace we beg for, and is given by God. A. W. Richard Sipe in his book “Living the Celibate Life: A Search for Models and Meaning” suggests that to live this vocation requires constant vigilance, and for it to be a focused part of a daily examen:
How did I live my celibacy today?
Where might I have been drawn away, in my thoughts and feelings?
For the one offending priest the journalists managed to talk to in the film, there was only fallacious reasoning and pride, and an inability to recognise his own sin. It revealed something ugly and cold, and definitely not the love of God.
In The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius encourages us to accept the authority of the Church, and when read in the light of the child abuse scandal, the way in which he does is difficult to swallow:
What seems to me white, I will believe to be black if the hierarchical Church so defines.The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
It is pertinent to remember that Ignatius was operating at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and that he also says:
But while it does harm in the absence of our superiors to speak evil of them before the people, it may be profitable to discuss their bad conduct with those who can apply a remedy.The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
It is important to be clear to what we are referring and here, Ignatius refers to clergy in higher positions of authority. Similar clarity is needed, for instance as regards the abuse survivor in the trailer saying:
How do you say no to God?
The priest is not God: neither is a particular priest, bishop nor cardinal the Church. And the Church is not God. They are not all the same. Priests, bishops and cardinals can be as guilty as anyone of bad conduct because they are human: the Church is an imperfect institution, subject to the flaws of human frailty. George A. Aschenbrenner in his book “Stretched for Greater Glory” draws a parallel with the parable of the wheat and the darnel in Matthew’s gospel. He says:
“Some enemy has done this” (13.28). Yet Jesus is also clear that the darnel and the wheat will be allowed to grow together until the end. The mixture of consolation and desolation will continue in all human hearts, which therefore are the only field in which holiness can germinate, bud and blossom.George A. Aschenbrenner. Stretched for Greater Glory
While we may expect, on a superficial level, for the church to be perfect, we must recognise that it is not: it is managed by human beings engaged in the process of discernment, and we must therefore be vigilant for where the enemy has sown the darnel in with the wheat. Saying no to a priest, or the Church, is not necessarily saying no to God. And I do appreciate that the survivor was speaking from the perspective of a child, and a child might not appreciate the distinction. But as discerning members of the Church, we do have a duty to discuss their bad conduct with those who can apply a remedy. In the case of the child abuse scandal, since the problem was systemic within the Church, that duty fell to the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe. We owe them a debt of gratitude, because although it is painful, and shameful, this corruption has to be rooted out. In the Church, as in school, safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults is the responsibility of everyone.