This year at the 2016 Academy Awards, Best Picture of the Year was given to the film Spotlight, as it should. While it is a difficult subject to face, it is an essential cinematic narrative that captures The Boston Globe’s relentless search that left the Catholic diocese and its leadership exposed.
In 2002, The Boston Globe’s investigative team, code-name Spotlight, broke a story that had been boiling under the surface of the city for decades. It was the newspaper's front cover feature on January 6, a Sunday. It’s content would shatter the foundation of the city’s predominant religion.
Priest John Geoghan was brought to trial in June of 2001, on account of numerous allegations against the city’s trusted priest. It was a horrific realization for the victims’ families and all the members of the Boston Catholic Church. The case was such a complex catastrophe it remained a cover page feature for the months to come. But when Spotlight sought for more than a mere front page story, the truth revealed that beyond the several priestly perpetrators laid an entirely corrupted system.
By January 31 of 2002 Spotlight reported that, over the past ten years, the Archdiocese of Boston had quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests throughout the city. (As the story continued to unravel, it ended up being closer to over 250 priests, and this was just in Boston.) Spotlight would soon discover the crisis was a worldwide epidemic stemmed from the Catholic Church. After revealing the methodical clerical reassignments, that archbishops often camouflaged as “in treatment" or “sick leave”, it became clear that the crisis wasn’t only the incessant, heinous sexual assaults of local priests, but also a broader deception amidst the Catholic Church.
For a city, that may be considered cynical and cold by “outsiders” (basically anyone who’s not a Boston native), Boston had long been known as faithful to it’s religious views and communities. In a recent interview with Robby Robinson, editor of the Spotlight team at the time of the investigation and now Editor-at-Large of The Boston Globe, said, “The church was the most important and powerful institution in Boston [and] Boston is the most catholic city in the archdiocese in the country." While a mere 19% of Americans are Catholic, 47% of Boston identify as Catholic. If there were a city that would more greatly feel the impacts from such a betrayal of the church, it would be Boston. Exposure of these chilling cases, from endless testimonies of individuals who suffered emotional and psychological effects of the abuse, opened a pious Pandora’s box that would soon be felt across the globe. Undoubtedly the truth would alter the faith of thousands.
Boys were predominantly the victims in all of the Boston cases. Fatherless homes of low income families were often the most accessible targets. Single mothers felt “blessed” that the priests were eager to fill the role of father in their homes; eager to take their boys out to a ball game or for ice cream, or stop by just to tuck their kids into bed. Boys, unthinkably young boys (some as young as four years old), were often left in the care of these men, as if they were their own sons. As is commonly correlated with sexual abuse, they weren’t necessarily beaten and physically abused (as many testimonies reported). Rather boys were doted on, presumably nurtured by these men and then violated, just to be nurtured and violated again. Cornered between affection and monstrosity, comfort and confusion, trust and violation, the absurd mental battle that these incredibly young boys faced with religious leaders would haunt them, their spouses and families for years to come.
And their faith? How does one have faith when the source of their living nightmare is standing behind the pulpit every Sunday? Where does faith have room to stand after such an onslaught?
It can become a grey place indeed, where faith and humanity reside. When our beliefs are meant to rely on a solid foundation, it is ironic that we’ve appointed men to lead us in this journey. For those of us who have ever had a place we call our home church or a Christian community we’ve invested in, feeling wronged by our faith is something to which many can relate.
Church is a place where we are expected to be vulnerable. It is a place we put a lot of trust in, if not the utmost trust. And when that trust is broken, or abused, it deeply affects the core of our being. We invest in churches and Christian institutions with the appropriate assumption that our best interest is at hand, that such a place would handle its congregation with honor and integrity, regardless of the circumstance.
But man is broken in so many ways. He is faulted. We all are. Yet discovering that a spiritual leader, whom you’ve held with high regard, is deeply faulted, can break down a hope within you (“Delayed hope makes the heart sick…” Prov. 13:12). Discovering a pastor or priest, whose words you held as gold, is a hypocrite, living a life completely contradicting the very words they preach, your faith can feel faulted, at times even disingenuous. It is no wonder so many of us raised in The Church (Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, what have you) can find that, in some instances, life without a church community would appear much less complicated. It is no wonder so many of us have lost grasp of the convictions that were once the foundation of our faith. Granted, the sexual and psychological massacre demonstrated by the Catholic Church far outweighs the pains many of us have encountered. Or perhaps it perfectly depicts what you’ve encountered. Either way, when our hope is hindered by spiritual leaders in our life, it can easily strip us of all of our faith. It can cause us to doubt the existence and agenda of a God who we’ve understood to be the source of all things good. Amidst the doubts and disillusionment, faith can begin to fade.
Yet, faith is often what defines our religion, or our view of God. But it is also defines a meaning of complete trust and confidence; The belief that while all things in life may fail and falter, one thing remains constant. And in that one entity we can place all hope. Religion is a broken system, because it is a system led by man, fallible man.
In many religions, in most churches, somewhere along the way we’ve allowed our faith to be placed in man rather than a sovereign Lord. We’ve allowed it to be placed in an institution rather than God. Particularly in America, we’ve become so accustomed to it, we don’t even see it, until our faith is affected by it. It's understandable how one could lose their faith in a sovereign God, when men have so deeply wronged you in the name of God. But it is for these very encounters that our souls are so desperately designed for a faith that extends beyond this world, beyond organized religion and beyond a faulted man.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:1-3