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Aug2TueAward-winning Spotlight reveals truth in dark corners. August 2, 2016 by James Read and Aimee Patterson
In our culture, films have become a place where we wrestle with the big questions of life. Who is God? What gives life meaning? What does it mean to be human? Reel to Real explores the intersection between film and theology, offering thoughtful engagement with an art form capable of conveying deep spiritual truth. Dr. James Read, director of The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Dr. Aimee Patterson, a Christian ethics consultant at the Ethics Centre, reflect on Spotlight.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
I watched the movie Spotlight reluctantly. Despite the fact that it received glowing reviews and the Academy Award for best picture, it didn't interest me. Yet another opportunity for popular culture to draw attention to problems in the church, I thought. My expectations were low, and in this respect they were met. Although this docudrama-style flick exposed issues of abuse in the church, it didn't sufficiently explore them.
What Spotlight attempts to do is convert us to the notion that journalism is a profession the world needs, a profession that is motivated to find the truth. The investigative reporters—the “Spotlight” team of The Boston Globe—are a tenacious bunch. They won't let go of this story despite the various obstacles they face in exposing the facts. Until a spotlight shines truth into the dark corners of the Catholic Church, the abuse continues.
But what is “truth”? Truth is an age-old concern. It's been under investigation long before Pilate asked the question. Is truth primarily about exposing facts? Why do we want to know the truth, or think we have a right to it?
I would have liked this film to contemplate why abuse happens in the church. In one scene, an attorney for the church says persuasively that the church is full of good people who do a lot of good things. But the abuse exposed was not just a matter of individual priests committing sinful acts. It was systemic. How can good deeds and the sexual abuse of children exist side by side? The Spotlight team was content to report incidents of abuse, but the film doesn't explore what lies beneath.
To tell the truth, I didn't think Spotlight was a good movie, either. To me, it seemed like they were trying too often to make a scene dramatic. Maybe I'm just conditioned by Hollywood to expect car chases, shootouts and flying superheroes. The story Spotlight tells is important, but it isn't exciting. The truth often isn't.
I think you're right that the movie was not trying to tell the story of sexual abuse of children at the hands of clergy, but I think it's more than propaganda for investigative journalism. I think it's about betrayal of vocation. “Spotlight” was the name of the team at The Boston Globe. The team was supposed to bring hidden and embarrassing truth to light. They had leads about a church cover-up early on, but ignored them or sat on them. Either way, they failed in the very thing that was their chief calling. According to the movie, it took a Jew from out of town to call them back. (Sound familiar?)
Other professions are subject to betrayals, too. Doctors who write useless prescriptions to get annoying patients to go away, for instance, or treat their medical skill as if it were just one more commodity on the store shelf. Think of lawyers who seem uninterested in justice, but very interested in winning. And teachers? The Apostle Paul said a time would come when people would “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). These days, it's easy to find such compliant teachers, it seems.
When I heard the title Spotlight, my mind went to the final verses of Psalm 139. There, David says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart … See if there is any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24 NRSV). Anything wicked in a politician who abuses his power?! We know King David could be a scoundrel (and worse), so when he says this, he is either a self-deceived fool or a model of courageous faith.
The church and the press in Boston betrayed their vocations, and in doing so harmed those they were supposed to serve. But it's tough to stick firmly to one's calling, don't you think? Let's show a little grace.
Timing is everything. This morning I was leading a classroom of cadets in a discussion of the relationship between vocation and professional ethics in Christian ministry. One of the take-home pieces was that leaders in The Salvation Army—particularly officers—are held to a higher, more stringent level of accountability than others who identify as Christians and Salvationists.
All Christians are called to be ethical. But officers are called to enter into ministry relationships in which there is an unequal power dynamic. For example, if I seek out pastoral care from my corps officer, it is likely because I am in a vulnerable position. I trust that they will speak a good word into my life. Whether this trust is based on my experience of them as trustworthy people or on the fact that they wear a uniform with red epaulets, I believe that they have been put in that position because they are committed to having my best interests at heart.
You wrote that Spotlight is about the betrayal of vocation or profession in a more general sense. I agree that any professional can betray their profession. But while I expect my doctor to hold herself accountable to ethical guidelines provided by the provincial College of Physicians and Surgeons, I don't place expectations on her moral character outside that role. Wouldn't you agree that our expectations of those who serve the body of Christ should be different? I am convinced that a good officer is someone who has integrity. Someone with the strength to be faithful to God, to others and to themselves.
Certainly the most baffling scene in Spotlight is a brief interview between a reporter and a priest accused of child
abuse. The priest shows no accountability for his actions. It's not that he denies them; he just appears completely ignorant of the harm he has caused. I don't get it.
Baffling, indeed! And apparently that scene is true to life. When the Boston Globe reporter confronted him, the real priest (Rev. Ronald H. Paquin), said, “Sure, I fooled around. But I never raped anyone and I never felt gratified myself.” This man is so blind that no amount of spotlighting will make him self-aware.
Another series of scenes that stand out for me are the ones where reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) discovers there is a house where molester priests are living just around the corner from his home. Carroll has kids and he wants to protect them. He wants to protect other people's kids, too. His solution is to go public. They say ancient maps marked certain spots with the warning: “Here there be dragons!” I think Carroll wanted to mark the molesters' house that way. And, naturally, he is irate when the Spotlight team leader tells him he can't do that because it would compromise the integrity of the bigger story.
I get it. As a grandparent, there's nothing I want more than to protect my grandchildren from sexual abuse. But aren't we told that “outing” the molesters would probably not have created any greater degree of protection for the kids? That people are abused by people they know and trust, not by neighbourhood strangers?
Shining a spotlight on Paquin exposes him, but it yields no illumination. And with Carroll, shining a spotlight exposes, but it does not protect. Spotlights in the hands of others are of limited value. What is needed is self-awareness.
That's part of what jumps out for me about Psalm 139—the one singing the psalm is the one inviting the spotlight.
You said that we hold Christian ministers (officers included) to a higher standard of integrity. Frankly, I am not sure this expectation fits our theology, but it is a fact. Because it is, lots of people are like the characters in the movie who opened themselves to abuse because they figured their abuser was “God.” As in the movie, people leave the church because they see the hollowness of its standard-bearers. That's a heavy burden to bear. If I am right, ministers can bear it only if they are courageous enough to dare to know themselves.