It’s strange, watching a film based on events of which you were part, however peripherally. The film Spotlight has that effect on me: I was in Boston the year the Boston Globe newspaper revealed the extensive cover-up by Church authorities of child-abusing priests in the archdiocese.
With minimal sensationalism Spotlight tells the story of how a team of journalists on the Globe followed up on the background to the conviction of a former priest extradited from California to Massachusetts to stand trial for child abuse crimes committed twenty years before. This led them to an abuse victims support group, an attorney working for victims, and to the big story that brought down the most powerful bishop in the United States Catholic Church.
It is an excellent film that also highlights another important dimension to the scandal: the explicit or implicit compliance of Boston police, judiciary and media in ‘burying’ a scandal that should have been revealed ten to twenty years before.
Beyond the specifics of the cover-up the film is about accountability, holding those in authority accountable for their actions. Few escape unscathed: the Boston legal system cooperated with the Church in covering up the abuse cases, agreeing to let things be ‘settled’ internally. The archdiocese failed also in their duty by not removing abusing clergy from active ministry. Even, they discovered, the Globe itself buried news they’d got years before. Power trumped justice, lies trumped truth. Accountability was nowhere to be seen, for a while it least.
The strength of this film goes way beyond the events it describes. It goes to heart of a challenge facing us everywhere: holding those in power to account – in Church, in State, in media, business, families, and so on. It speaks volumes to us in South Africa today about the failures of institutions and individuals in our society, their abuse of authority and often exercise of raw power, and the public’s failure – our failure – to demand they be held to account for their actions.
In Boston studying theology prior to ordination, I remember the shame my fellow seminarians and I felt at the way the Church had acted. The usual excuses, that it was protecting the ‘good name’ of the rest of the Church, that media was out to ‘get’ the Church, rang hollow: the media was doing its job, exposing corruption in high places (even if these were ‘our’ places).
Wise lay voices helped us through this. “You are not the cardinal, you are not those who covered up,” they would say: “You can choose where to stand: with the victims or with those who abuse power.” Catholics in Boston, including many priests, took a principled stand against misuse of power, calling on Cardinal Law to resign, which he did on December 13, 2002.
Rather than see Spotlight as anti-Catholic propaganda, let’s see it rather as a reminder to us today in South Africa of the need to challenge the powers that tend to corrupt state, society and sometimes church.
By Anthony Egan, S.J.