Seeing is believing

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The problem with movies is that watching costumed actors in an unfolding story over two hours leads us to believe them. It becomes difficult to separate fact from storytelling. Cinema becomes irresistible. What most people view at the movie theater they receive as historical truth.

Now we have “Spotlight.”

Many who lived through the priest abuse scandal can remember opening the Boston Globe day after day and reading the repetition of the ugly abuse stories, or front page  attacks on the Catholic Church and its leaders. The movie is a painful reminder.

We are a house divided on the quality of the movie. One of us found the film compelling and the other thought it rather tedious with reporters dashing around banging on doors and scribbling on notepads.

The movie seemed like an attempt to create another “All the President’s Men.” Objective journalists suit up again: we brought down a president, we can bring down a cardinal. It’s the cover-up they’re after.

Other reviewers, too, have mixed views. The New York Times has lauded the movie, because it fits its lifestyle agenda, most openly the little plug about the problem being celibacy. Frank Bruni on their staff gets in his licks about the privileged status of all religious institutions. Bruni also thinks the movie debunks the conservative claims of a “War on Religion.” After all there were abuses by the clergy.

Eileen McNamara, the op-ed writer erroneously credited with breaking the story of clerical abuse, has written vitriolic columns about the church for decades. No longer with the Globe staff, she is still angry. Recently she complained that the Globe “cornered the market on papal pandering” when the Pope visited the U.S. in September.

David Pierre’s new book, “Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of the Boston Globe’s reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church,” puts his spotlight on the paper’s long history of anti-church bias and it institutional blind spot when it comes to cases of horrific abuse at other institutions. Boston area school cases were generally ignored for decades. Not that pointing at others makes any abuse somehow excusable.

The Globe has long been at loggerheads with the Church because of its stand on same-sex relations. Given its newsroom’s liberal biases, Globe reporters distorted the facts, suggesting that the offending priests were pedophiles, men with attractions to young children up to ages 11. But as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice researchers point out, “less than 5 percent of the molesting priests were pedophiles.” They found that at least 75 percent of victims were post-pubescent young men. Spotlight staff are largely self-described as “former or lapsed Catholics.”

The self-congratulatory media lauds the film as objective but not everyone agrees. Certainly not Jack Dunn, Boston College media spokesman, former Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, former Globe publisher Richard Gilman and victim lawyer Eric MacLeish. They all say their actions were portrayed in a negative way damaging their reputations to “add drama to the film.” In an op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star, Gilman alleges the movie took great liberties with truth by dramatizing the risks the Globe took in confronting church bureaucracy. He said further that “Words are put in people’s mouths. Some scenes didn’t happen and in others multiple sources are combined in one person.” Well, a movie is just celluloid.

Writing in the online magazine Crisis, Anne Hendershott tells of Jack Dunn tearfully recalling how his son had to defend his father in front of his Boston College High School classmates. He, Kurkjian, Gillman and MacLeish have been damaged by this movie. And then we might mention Cardinal Bernard Law. He was run out of town. His bureaucratic failures are considered on a par with abuse itself.  Just like “All the President’s Men.”

What has been the fallout from the movie, reporting and investigations?

Catholics left the church, some just needed an excuse. Readers also left the Boston Globe. The picture of the Catholic Church as a power player in town has been corrected. In order to pay off victims (mainly their lawyers), the archdiocese sold the residence on Commonwealth Avenue and moved its offices to Braintree. Innocent priests were accused by scoundrels in search dollars from the Church’s former deep pockets.

But the Boston Globe finally recognizing its long antagonism toward the Church, hired John L. Allen Jr. as associate editor of Crux, specializing in all things Catholic.

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.  You can view previous columns by the Ryans here

Opposing views on Spotlight: 

Spotlight on the Boston Globe by Kevin and Marilyn Ryan 

The gratifying, somber and powerful accuracy of ‘Spotlight’ by John Farrell