I came out of Spotlight with one of those headaches that you get for trying not to cry for two hours. I’d expected it to be maybe not the most uplifting night out at the cinema, but I hadn’t expected to be so torn up emotionally by a movie that’s in a lot of ways an ode to journalism. But as I sat there watching the credits scroll up, I was glad I had gone alone. This was definitely not a movie I wanted to talk about on the walk home.
Before we get into this, you should know Spotlight is terrific, Tom McCarthy’s return to form and beyond, the story of the Boston Globe reporting that broke open the Catholic sex abuse story that the Church had, until then, managed to cover up almost entirely. It’s about shoe leather journalism. It’s about archives and research and looking for patterns and running down leads. It’s about the irreparable damage institutions can do. It’s an incredibly satisfying film about good people doing good work.
It’s also about being Catholic, specifically Boston Catholic.
I was raised Catholic, not Boston Catholic, but Catholic. It’s different because Seattle lacks Boston’s history. All our Catholics are from somewhere else (except for me; I was born on First Hill.) We’re free from that extra layer of secrets, but we’re not free.
I went to church every Sunday (or Saturday night) ((or both, if Christmas was on a Saturday, because the Christmas obligation and the Sunday obligation are two different things.)) I participated in all the sacraments you can without being married, dead, or a religious. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through university. And I’m an atheist.
I say I was raised Catholic, because I was raised to be a Catholic. I was raised in a Catholic environment. I do not say I grew up Catholic because I never actually was. I will never forget the speech my Confirmation group was given, that if we were being compelled in any way to go through with the sacrament, we should not do so. I had already been informed by my mother that if I chose not to be confirmed, I would be pulled out of my Catholic high school and enrolled in the local public school for my senior year. From a school where I had known 20% of my class for at least ten years to a school I knew no one at all. There was no real choice here. I was confirmed, and as soon as my time was my own, I stopped going to church.
These days, I only attend church for funerals. And two or three times in the past 15 years, the Requiem Mass on All Souls Day. Sometimes you just need that music even if you don’t believe.
And that was the problem. I never believed. When I was tiny I believed in the bad stuff, the stuff that cultivates that good old Catholic guilt. Jesus is watching everything you do. Jesus is in everyone you meet, so consider that when you lie to the man on the street and tell him you don’t have any cash. At the Judgement Day everyone will hear all of your thoughts, so good luck not thinking of any dirty things. But once I was old enough to think it through? I didn’t even believe that. You worry a little that it might be true, if you’re the worrying kind, and I always have been. But you don’t really buy it.
The thing that’s rough, especially as a child, is when everyone else around you is selling it hard, and you want to buy it. But you can’t. The story doesn’t fit together. And you’re looking around at all these terrific people — your favorite teacher, your beloved aunt, your kind neighbor, your best friend’s mom — and you think: “There must be something wrong with me.”
Because all these good people, believing so hard? They must be right. They must be. These were the people you loved and trusted and, most of all, looked up to. They believed. So you try to do all the things. You sing all the songs. You do the Catholic calisthenics. You read your catechism. You get straight As in Religion. You teach Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. You pray even though deep down you know you’re just talking to yourself. Because you are the one who is wrong.
That’s the system. The system is set up to make you believe that the flaw is in you. The system has worked for everyone else. The system is fundamentally good and pure. You are fundamentally different and bad.
That’s the system where men and women in power can see the child who is different, who can focus on that fact and that shame and manipulate the situation. Maybe they can help your family out, maybe they can get you an ice cream, maybe they can see the secret you’ve been hiding and in that secret truly see YOU. Once they see, and you know they know, it’s then that they twist the knife and betray you. And who can you tell? Who will believe you are a victim when you are the one who is different and wrong?
Abuse by priests is not something I encountered, though I had an awareness of all kinds of abuse from a young age. I was in elementary school in the 80s, in a time of both hardcore Stranger Danger, but also of the less-discussed Buddy System. You were never to be alone with an adult. I have strong memories of the message to avoid the mythic stranger with candy, luring you into a van, but I also vividly remember the mandate to maintain the buddy system while at church events, in the parish rectory, in the little house that served as a gathering place for the youth group.
Never be alone with an adult.
I was lucky. This week I found a (sadly or thankfully out-of-date) database of priests, deacons, and brothers who have been accused of sexual abuse of minors.
There was one name on the list I knew.
I found myself in a strange emotional space, recognizing a single name. On one hand, it’s sickening to know these facts about a man who served as a priest at my high school. On the other, there’s a sharp sense of relief that I only knew one.
When the credits came up on Spotlight I was astonished to look at my watch and see it had barely been two hours. I felt sure it was at least three hours long, and I think it’s because every moment was of such importance. Every bit of work, every piece of the puzzle shines a light on a little bit more of the truth of real people.
Spotlight is a film that’s almost entirely about the work. Relationships outside of the paper and the investigation are mentioned, but largely go unseen, so there’s not that breath of air that can come with onscreen family life. Time away from the paper is rarely time away from the investigation, and when it is, it’s time about faith, and the challenges both to and by faith. And that’s the other thing that was exhausting.
There’s an investigative montage in the film, and as we see the members of the team on porches and at front doors all around the city, we also see, hovering in the background of many shots, the spires of the local parishes. The Church is always there behind these people who are all the same kind, faithful, church-going people I knew as a child.
We all want to believe that if we were the adults in this situation, we would do the right thing. We would protect the children in our care. But I couldn’t help but watch all of these people and wonder if they were the same people I knew as a child. The good, kind people who believed it all. The people who, knowingly or not, made me feel like I was the one who was wrong.
In high school, when I was trying to believe, I became a eucharistic minister. That is, I was tasked with distributing communion at Mass. The priest I worked with at school is no longer allowed to minister, because he was accused of abusing a 12 year old child.
This story is just the beginning.