Spotlight on the Boston Globe

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It has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster: Big stars. Big budget Hollywood advertising push. Dark, salacious story line. But the new movie, “Spotlight,” which chronicles the Globe’s revelations of the sexual abuse of children by some Catholic clergy, is also bound to be filled with distortions.

The movie is not due in theaters until November, and, ordinarily, we would not consider it a good idea to write a review without having first seen the film. But, having watched the trailers and lived through the events of 2002, we’re pretty sure we know where this movie is going.

Like the original Globe Spotlight Series, the Hollywood version no doubt presents a one-sided, distorted view of a wrenching moment in the history of the Catholic Church and the lives of all those touched by the scandal.

The film surely will bring back the shame that Catholics, clergy and laity alike, experienced when we became aware of the horrible events committed by some of our priests. It is also bound to re-ignite the hatred and deep animosity that many, particularly in the media, have for the Church.

Sadly, “Spotlight” is bound to cause much of the good will generated by Pope Francis’s recent visit to dissipate, replacing it with the return of an anti-Catholicism that often lays dormant in the hearts of many of our fellow Americans.

Although billed as “the true story” behind the priest abuse scandal, there are a few truths you are unlikely to see mentioned in this film:

Fact: Not that it is an excuse, but the incidence of abuse committed by Catholic priests is far lower than the incidence of sexual abuse committed by public school personnel. In fact, according to a 2011 independent and far-reaching study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, allegations of priest abuse were leveled at 4 percent of Catholic priests in the United States between the years 1950 and 2002. Most of these events took place between 1960 and 1984, decades before the Globe’s story.

Nevertheless, shortly after the Globe’s Spotlight Series, a WSJ-NBC poll revealed that 64 percent of those survey believed that Catholic priests “frequently” abused children. Eight years later, Newsweek printed an article entitled, “Priests Commit No More Abuse than Other Males.” But the damage to the reputation of the Church was already been done.

Fact: The majority of the sex abuse committed by priests (fully 75 percent) cannot technically be classified as pedophilia, having been committed against young men between the ages of 11 and 17. Although sexual relations between a 35-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy are certainly objectionable, particularly when the man is a priest who uses his position of authority to extract sexual favors from a minor, such a scenario is nowhere near as disturbing as a case of true pedophilia.

Nevertheless, the Globe, and the media in general, consistently lumped all such cases together, suggesting that all instances of abuse were committed against very young children, rather than against adolescent boys. In so doing, the media were able to depict all of the accused as monsters and, thereby, gain what Professor Phillip Jenkins of Baylor University has described as “rhetorical momentum” in their war against the Church.

Fact: A little less than half of the accused priests (1,881) were cleared of wrong-doing. These innocent priests are like the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan, who said after he was acquitted in a nasty corruption trial, “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?” They are marked for life with dark suspicions.

Fact: A handful of the accused priests (3.5 percent) accounted for a disproportionate number (26 percent) of victims. Thus, far from the priest abuse problem being something that is endemic to the Church, the abuse appears to have been fairly concentrated among outliers.

Fact: Many allegations of priest abuse were based on “recovered memory” evidence, recognized now as the psychological quackery of the 20th century. Like the “spectral evidence” used to convict the innocent in the witch trials of the 17th century, “recovered memories” are not regarded as credible evidence due to the fact that people can be quite suggestible and sometimes form false memories. Remember the Fells Acres tragic miscarriage of justice?

These are facts you are unlikely to learn from the forthcoming film. Here are some important questions that the film will likely leave unanswered:

What has been the impact of the sensational and often biased coverage of this tragic problem? One outcome is that innocent priests, men who have made heroic sacrifices to serve others, were spit upon and reviled in our streets. And who knows the numbers of young men who were and are now discouraged from entering the priesthood?

What, beyond sorrow and shame, has the scandal cost the Catholic Church? Estimates of financial penalties range from $2.6-$3 billion. To date, six dioceses have been bankrupted.  Annually, Church authorities pay $300,000 to victims and their lawyers.

Other than the abuse victims and innocent priests, are there any other victims? The parishioners whose churches were closed to pay the lawyers of both real and fake victims? The inner city students whose Catholic schools were shut down? The poor and the sick who are no longer serviced by the Church?

Why would a once distinguished newspaper engage in such a sustained attack on the Catholic Church, and why (13 years later) is Hollywood pulling out all the stops to drag this distorted story back?  

Possibly because the Catholic Church stands for many of the things that Hollywood and liberal journalists oppose: the right to life, traditional marriage, religious liberty. How better to advance their secular, “progressive” agenda than to destroy the credibility and moral authority of one of their strongest opponents?

See the movie, if you must, but brace yourself!

Or better yet, shun the movie and don’t allow Hollywood to capitalize on the Globe’s distortions.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan are writers, former teachers, and the editors of Why I’m Still A Catholic. They write primarily on cultural, educational and religious topics.


The gratifying, somber and powerful accuracy of ‘Spotlight’