Editorial: In the 'Spotlight'

There is a natural gut reaction that happens when Catholics hear that Hollywood is telling a story about the Church — and it’s one that comes from experience. The Church long has been the subject of such anti-Catholic productions like “Dogma,” “Priest” and “The Magdalene Sisters.” Even this month, the new ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals” — based on an Irish-Catholic family — promises to result in heartburn for Catholic viewers.

It’s understandable, therefore, that the rise to stardom of the critical darling drama “Spotlight,” which relates the story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered and exposed systematic clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, might result in frayed nerves for our community of faith. In his Best Picture acceptance speech at the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, Michael Sugar, producer, said that he hoped “Spotlight” gave “a voice to survivors” that “will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.” He added: “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

Such a moment is provocative. In its own editorial, the National Catholic Reporter called it a “fitting humiliation” for the Church. But we prefer to take a more optimistic view, one that highlights the response of Church leaders to the film’s creation and success as an example of fitting humility — one that is both to be applauded and emulated.

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, the head of the Vatican’s clergy abuse commission, called the film “important” and praised the journalists who brought the scandal out into the open. Prior to the film’s release in November, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote that “the media was one of the major forces pushing the Church to respond in a way that it had failed to do up to that point, and we are better for it.” Even the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, ran a piece saying that the film is “not anti-Catholic ... because it manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities.”

Such a humble reaction by the Church should help Catholics feel optimistic after the weight of 15 years of the abuse crisis — but an optimism that in no way detracts from the deep pain and suffering of survivors.

While “Spotlight” wasn’t a perfect film, it was critically important for the Church for two main reasons. First, it gave the Church the chance to tell the rest of the story — namely that the abuse scandal doesn’t end with a list of names of abusers on a darkened screen. As Bishop Edward J. Burns, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, told Our Sunday Visitor in November, since the crisis broke in 2002, more than 2 million people (priests included) working for Church institutions have gone through background checks, and more than 4.4 million children have been educated as to what type of behavior is appropriate and what is not. The value of such measures cannot be downplayed as the Church continues to move forward.

Second, the attention garnered by “Spotlight” will hold the Church accountable as it continues its vital work in the area of abuse. As the tragic news broke March 1 of hundreds of children who were abused in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, we are once again overwhelmed with the knowledge and the responsibility that there is much work to be done and so many wounds to be healed. Continued vigilance and transparency on the part of the Church is critical to ensure that the history of sexual abuse never repeats itself. And films like “Spotlight” play a vital role.

Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor