The excellent film, Spotlight, exposes corruption and collusion at the heart of a number of institutions in Boston over recent decades. The main offender ofcourse is the Catholic Church, whose record in failing to deal with child abuse is the central theme of the film. The Boston Globe conducts a forensic investigation under its new editor Marty Baron (Lieve Schreiber).
The investigation is undertaken by the four person Spotlight team, whose personal stories provide an interesting sub-plot – especially that of the lead journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).
The theme of covering up child abuse, failing to hold priests and the institutional church to account is not new. The revelations unveiled by the Boston Globe back in 2003 did play a part in exposing the true scale of child abuse perpetrated by the Church in America. Further exposes revealed abuse to be a worldwide phenomena.
Child abuse in the Church is now a well-known, with perhaps some of the initial shock having been softened by revelations of abuse in other institutions such as the media and education. It is one of the stranger ironies in Britain that having played such an important journalistic role in revealing child abuse in the Church, the BBC then turned out to be less than virtuous itself, harbouring the likes of Jimmy Savile and others.
Where Church and media have common fault is over the promotion of the cult of celebrity and deference. The media played a huge role in building Savile and others into these celebrity personalities to be almost worshipped, certainly not questioned. The Church played a similar role with its clergy, they were untouchable. Similarly, with both institutions, it was protecting the reputation of the institution itself, rather than the plight of the victims, that was regarded as paramount.
Another strange overlap comes with Catholics, in my view, possibly more susceptible to idoltry than other parts of the population. The Catholic press cannot wait to lionise any celebrity that it considers can be claimed as one of their own. Note the fawning approach to former Prime Minister Tony Blair when he decided to convert to the “one true faith.” Similarly, the cloying tributes to Savile on his death and a perceived slowness at the time of the later revelations to acknowledge that he really hadn’t been a very nice man.
Perhaps the tendency to idolise comes from the need to celebrate a God in the first place, though ofcourse idoltry is one of the most serious of sins.
What is worrying on the subject of the Church and child abuse is just how little has changed. Yes there have been revelations of the Boston Globe variety across the world. In the UK, stringent child protection measures were brought in following an inquiry led by Lord Nolan in 2001. A whole child protection structure now rightly stretches across the Church in the UK.
There is now a Pope who has acknowledged the need to act and try to make amends to the victims. The tipping point was reached some time ago, beyond which reputation preservation regarding the institutional church in this area was impossible.
But at grass roots level what has changed in terms of the structures of the Church that allowed the abuse to happen? The terms of employment for priests remain the same, namely celibate males. The authoritarian hierarchy up from parish to bishop, cardinal and pope remains unaltered. The priest at parish level remains very powerful.
What of the attitude of the laity? It is always a strange phenonema to see people adopting young priests as if they were their own. Yes, everyone needs support, none more so than the priest, who struggles to fulfil an often lonely task. But when does that parental type approach turn into deference and once again putting the priest on a pedestal.
If the Church were serious about tackling child abuse and other issues it would be radically changing its structures. The role of the priest in the 21st century should have been examined and changed. The discrimination against women in the role should have ended years ago. The position should have been made more accountable – whether a man or woman being in situ.
The laity should have been encouraged to “grow up” a bit more in its attitude to the clergy. There has been perceivable change in the attitude of the laity, most were shocked by the abuse revelations and many felt betrayed. But too much deference still exists, the Father knows best attitude is still prevalent in many areas today. The priest is still, all too often, put on a pedestal rather than being seen as a first among equals.
The priest’s role though needs redefining, including the provision of more support. It is an odd role to say the least, something between a social worker, shop steward, business manager and policeman. They need help from the parish and support in themselves.
Another injustice of the system is the lack of basic employment rights of individual priests. They are dependent to a large degree on the whim of the bishop, who can move a priest from his parish with very little consultation. There are no wages as such and pensions remain a matter for personal arrangement.
So there is much that needs doing, if the Church is ever to move on from its shady past. Spotlight offers a reminder of the scandal of child abuse, it is a film that all Catholics should see but it offers only a reminder of the enormity of the crime. There is still so much that needs to be done in changing the Church and its structures if it is ever to be stopped from happening again.