Defend Truth


Spotlight: Piercing the Silence

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ (entered the Jesuits 2001; ordained 2006) is the Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

The winner of this year’s Academy Award for best film, Spotlight, brought to light heinous crimes committed by Catholic clergy and has forced the Church to face up to a massive problem. It also exposed the multiple failures in society when it comes to covering up abuse and shows that no institution is immune to corruption. While the film forces everyone to confront harsh truths, we should also avoid generalisations and sweeping statements, such as the correlation between celibacy and abuse.

Last week, on The Daily Maverick Show on Cliff Central, Kingsley Kipury interviewed Richard Sipe, a former-priest who left the priesthood after eighteen years to marry a nun. They have one son. While still a monk, Sipe was sent to study psychology by the abbot of the monastery he joined; he later became a psychotherapist who worked with clergy. He has also taught in major seminaries in the USA as well as colleges and medical schools, and served as a consultant in both civil and criminal cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Sipe spoke about his experience as a psychoanalyst working with clergy in light of Spotlight.

On Sunday night, Spotlight won the Best Picture Oscar at the 88th Academy Awards. The film, focussed on the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team exposé of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-ups, won the best picture award. The producer, Michael Sugar, said at the awards ceremony that the film gave “a voice to survivors” and that he hoped “that voice would become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.”

In 1990 Sipe startled the world in a controversial book, A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, in which he claimed that almost 50% of priests were sexually active. A South African priest-psychologist, Victor Kotze, did a similar study and his findings supported that of Sipe’s. In a later book, Sex, Priests and Power, Sipe estimated that 2% of priests were involved with prepuberty minors and 4% with adolescents. This suggests that 6% of priests are abusers.

After many years of research and study Sipe concludes that the Church has a systemic problem when it comes to dealing with sexuality. He says that the Church needs to face up to a number of problems surrounding its teaching and practice on the matter. He remains a Catholic but says that he cannot accept some of the Church’s teaching about sexuality and has spent a number of years challenging it.

It is important, I think, to distinguish between priests who are not living celibate lives and those who are abusers. The two are often lumped together. Some anecdotal evidence of the abuse of minors in the general populace suggests that abuse levels are not unlike that found amongst priests. Priests, after all, come from the general populace. Religious leaders of other faith communities are not immune – cases of abuse have also been reported by other faith communities outside of the Catholic Church.

The work of dedicated journalists – like the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe – have brought to light heinous crimes committed by Catholic clergy and has forced the Church to face up to a massive problem. This cannot be denied or rationalised away. The very fact that a faith-based institution could allow such evil to be perpetuated is incomprehensible. Spotlight sends a clear message: the time of reckoning has arrived.

What Spotlight also reveals is just how complicit so many layers of society are when it comes to covering up abuse. It was not only the Church that covered up these terrible deeds but the Boston police, legal system, media and society. Some parents did not believe that their abused children were telling the truth, and others helped conceal it.

It took a new editor (the first Jewish editor of the Globe), with guts and determination, to convince his colleagues that this story needed to be investigated and brought to light. For decades the Boston Globe’s story was on the other side of the street. Since 1976, victims, their families, and lawyers were telling the newspaper about the crimes. The staff of the paper were silent. Some lawyers did deals with the Church for victims – they too remained silent once sums of money were paid out. As more and more victims told their stories it became clear that it was not only the Church that hid things.

While Spotlight tells the dark story of the abuse in the Catholic Church it reminds us of a chilling fact: the sexual abuse of children is not only a problem in the Church. Might this film help open the way for us to consider a forensic audit of all our societal institutions where vulnerable young people could be prey to abuse?

It is not uncommon, for example, to see and read stories about young people who have been abused by teachers. Cases of abuse have also been reported in the medical profession. Abuse happens in families too. The Church cannot – and should not – be let off the hook but Spotlight is a sobering reminder that abuse can and does happen in multiple contexts – places one might least expect.

Spotlight reveals the power that religion, like any big public institution, has. This film is also about the corruption of power in trusted institutions. No institution is beyond corruption. It was excepted that in the Church at least, truth would be a priority. The social and political power in the Church had been used for good outcomes in education, social services and healthcare. Spotlight reveals the abuse of that very same social and political power. It is also about the corruption of power and the tumultuous breakdown of trust.

Watching the film is a disillusioning experience. One cannot but help feel angry and ashamed. While many priests have been convicted of abuse, and are serving prison sentences, some of those who turned a blind eye or covered up the abuse remain in office. For many people, especially victims and professionals like Richard Sipe, not enough has been done to hold those complicit in the Church accountable and deal with the more systemic problems he believes need to be looked at.

There are more stringent controls in place now. Before a man can enter a seminary much more thorough checks are done – this includes a psychological assessment. Dioceses have protocols in place – which include reporting any abuse to civil authorities. Pope Francis has set up a Commission for the Protection of Minors and recently said that any bishop who covers up a case of abuse must resign. He made it clear that allegations of abuse must be reported.

Surrounded by the cast and crew in Hollywood on Sunday night, Michael Sugar said “Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children and restore the faith.” The recognition of Spotlight at the Academy Awards will hopefully remind the Church of the truth: irreparable damage has been done and protecting children and restoring faith is only the beginning of a massive job that still needs to be done.

The Church also has to face up too many other questions around sexuality – as Sipe and many others suggest. The Church’s continuing moral authority now depends much more on how it deals with this ongoing crisis. It’s a time of reckoning – most definitely for the Catholic Church. But hopefully Spotlight will encourage us to go further than the Church and help us face and purge any places where the vulnerable are preyed upon, abused and left scarred forever. DM


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