Facing the spotlight

May 2nd, 2016

Religious leaders of every faith and denomination should watch the Academy-award winning film “Spotlight.” It’s based on the true story of how an investigative team at the Boston Globe discovered and reported that Catholic priests were sexually assaulting children in Boston.

The story it tells is horrific on many levels. Children were targeted by predatory priests for molestation and rape over several decades. Survivors carried deep, emotional scars into adulthood, often suffering for years in silence.

Priests were protected by bishops and lay persons. Their grotesque sins were never revealed to their congregants. Their despicable crimes were never prosecuted. At least not until the Globe, which also initially didn’t want to rock the boat, woke up and began to fulfill its 1st amendment duties.

 “Spotlight” leaves much for viewers to unpack and consider. One point, subtly made but impossible to miss, is that there may be a unique theological reason why Catholic priests have abused thousands of victims around the world.

Yes, it’s a swipe at the controversial celibacy vow that Catholic priests must take. No, nothing more concrete than the opinion of a mental health counselor is presented as evidence.

But whatever explanation one chooses to believe, the film’s final scene leaves no doubt that there is an insidious pattern of priests abusing children that extends far beyond Boston. Scandals involving pedophile priests have emerged in more than 200 cities around the world.

Let the sheer scope of that sink in: More than 200 cities, approximately half of which are in the U.S. In Boston alone, nearly 250 priests and brothers (men who are members of a Catholic religious order) were accused of sexual abuse. More than 1,000 Bostonians are estimated to be survivors.

If on average only half as many victims can be found in each of the other 200-plus cities, that totals more than 100,000 survivors. And remember, we’re not just talking about the abuse of children, horrible as that is. We’re also talking about institutional indifference toward them and their families. We’re talking about a cultural and systemic devaluing of these children. We’re talking about the use of ecclesial power and influence to protect predators.

We’re talking about an ugly mess that makes a mockery of faith, trust, truth and sacraments.

I am sure that most priests and brothers aren’t sexual predators. And I would hope that most Cardinals and Bishops wouldn’t protect those who are.

However, all of us — Catholics and those of us who aren’t — can’t afford to turn away from this ugly, on-going crisis. We should see it as the epidemic that it is, and be completely committed to ending it and the culture that would justify covering it up.

And we non-Catholics should learn from this tragedy. We should examine our own churches and pulpits and ecclesial hierarchies. We should not assume that we are immune from this or similar sins and crimes.

We should not arrogantly conclude that the spotlight will never shine on us, or that we have nothing to hide.   

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