If you haven’t seen the movie Spotlight, you might want to. It is very well done and quite realistic. But the biggest aspect, for me, was the incredible scale of the priests as predators dynamic that the movie highlighted.

Suppose some priest molests a child in his church. Disgusting, but, taken alone, a commentary on one priest.

Suppose Church authorities know the case, but keep it quiet, even intimidating those involved, calling in favors from bureaucrats, doling out favors in return, and, yes, talking to the priest, reprimanding him, but then only  reassigning him – and if we give them the benefit of the doubt – due to believing it is dealt with and won’t reoccur. Presumably they are calculating costs to the church, and in their view, society, from full revelation being worse than the gain of jailing the priest and with absolute certainty he can’t do it again. Okay, also disgusting, and at best ignorant and callous, but certainly not astounding, and in some degree even understandable.

Suppose in Boston – and many other cities too – it happens not once, but 10 or 20 times. Now it would be for many onlookers incomprehensibly vile, because only delusion or self interest could sustain the fiction that it was being done in the belief further instances would be prevented, despite not going public and having priests removed and so on. So the choice would certainly be horrible, but I wouldn’t be shocked. Authoritarian institutions with perverse commitments and great power are designed for self preservation and elite aggrandizement, after all, and even for Cardinals the insight that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely applies – why wouldn’t it? Everything about the dynamics tells those at the top they can and even should do anything at all that they wish.

But now let’s say you discover that the phenomena are truly vast, and not just psychotic acts of the moment, so to speak, but clearly premeditated, as in literally planned. This is the first thing the movie contained that took me by surprise – and yet even that wasn’t the biggest shock when I thought about it. So, it wasn’t just that there were dozens, and even hundreds, of child molesting priests. And it wasn’t just that the church hierarchy routinely worked to hide it all, year after year after year, transferring the priests, putting them on temporary sick leave and the like, but really doing effectively nothing to stop the carnage, with kids and families repeatedly devastated at the hands of the offenders who the next day may well have spouted sermons on the necessity of higher morality, especially regarding the defenseless, which apparently didn’t include, for them, ten year olds. No, there was still another dimension that I hadn’t known from the news stories of years ago, which I admit I had mostly ignored once the initial story had been conveyed. The additional revelation was that the priests weren’t just pedophiles, or crazy, it was that they were methodical predators.

They picked out kids especially, and only from poor broken families of the very devout – precisely to diminish the likelihood of getting caught. Think about that. These ostensibly profoundly moral men didn’t psychotically fall upon some unsuspecting child who tickled their fancy in the heat of the moment. No. They examined their flocks and methodically found suitable targets – meaning ones that had little means, little worldly connection and awareness – only poor and broken families that were highly devout and devoted and for whom church affiliation was central to life and even survival, and set upon them. Grotesque. And the Church knew it. And abided it. And facilitated it. And at the top, Cardinal Law, exposed, wound up with a post in the Vatican.
And, yet, even beyond all that, now comes what may be the most generalizable and frightening aspect. Thousands of molestations and, over and over, families were silent, or if they tried to fight back, were bought, or bribed, or intimidated into submission. And so the whole thing remained mere rumor, except, of course, for the victims and their friends and families, or at least those who didn’t sublimate it out of their minds – a far from ridiculous strategy.

Think of the scale of the violations, the sheer number, and the number of people who had to know – families, friends, and even beyond that huge number, people who happened to see a priest with a child or who were told by victims, or heard rumors but ignored them, plus the church hierarchy, cops, lawyers, and judges, and the duration of the secrecy becomes mind boggling.

What the movie clarifies is that more often than not the basis for silence prevailing was obedience easily as much as fear or greed. Incredibly, it was often loyalty, even, not wanting to admit the horror. You go to church over and over, in some cases two or three times a week. It is the heart of your social connections. It is in your mind. It is a big part of your life, your child, or two, or three children, all molested – and apparently you just want to alibi it away, forget it, rationalize it, but not attack it. Honestly, I would find an epidemic of violent retribution less scary, more empathetic, in some sense.

Now couple this picture with the rise of Trump. I mean that seriously – and it really is a frightening tale. The extent to which people listening to him, watching his antics, reporting on them, even criticizing them, put up with it all and increasingly, in all too many case, even succumb to what is not just contrary to their own well being, but devastating to themselves and their relatives, and to people in their community, doing it with just some handouts, a pat on the back as if from God, and some intimidation and fear to back it up, all for the maintenance of identity, the illusion of a sense of meaning. It is a very disturbing picture, to put it mildly.

Trump and the other Republican maniacs had better be stopped soon, because if not, incredibly sadly, those who invest allegiance in them at the outset, no matter how benign or silly their reasons may be, are likely to remain vested even after the maniacal wild rhetoric becomes maniacal wild policy. Oh wait, haven’t we seen that already – on the other side of the aisle?

And I had one other thought, as well watching this movie. Imagine what a really free press, what really serious journalism undertaken at the scale of the Boston Globe or New York Times resources could achieve if it went after all the vile grotesque predation occurring in the U.S. and the world at the expense of the public as aggressively as it very rarely pursues a story that addresses power but doesn’t challenge its own foundations, its own team writ large, which, of course, the press never challenges – just like the church members never challenging their own.


  1. avatar
    Michael Lesher March 9, 2016 7:13 pm 

    I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment its overall merit. But from my own work on sex abuse cover-ups in Orthodox Jewish communities (I literally wrote the book on that subject), I know that Michael Albert is dead right on both major points he says he took from the film: that serial abusers are methodical and predatory in their choice and treatment of victims; and that the higher-ups in their religious organization have been well aware of this for decades, and have seen no reason to interfere with it. This is one reason I believe (self-servingly, I admit) that my book should be of interest to many people outside the Orthodox Jewish community, or outside any religious community, for that matter. Because what it suggests is a deadly harmony, even a kind of synergy, between the behavior of child-abusing pedophiles and the cynical power politics of elites who know that defenseless people are going to be sacrificed for their personal and collective gains, and who simply don’t care — as long as the victims are low-status kids (or working people, or Palestinians, or black people, etc., etc….) Tackling sex abuse cover-ups really means tackling a whole hierarchical way of thinking, in which those who directly or tacitly endorse the rule of the elites are complicit. And that battle is still waiting to be fought.

  2. John Mcnee March 9, 2016 4:45 pm 

    Hollywood movies are an awful way to learn the complex truth of actual history, and ZNet should know better than to put much trust in the Boston Globe. For a devastating critique of this Oscar winner, see Joann Wypijewski’s piece posted at Counterpunch (Feb. 29): “Oscar Hangover Special: Why SPOTLIGHT Is a Terrible Film” — and then, for supporting evidence about the cinematically vilified Father Shanley, her Sept/Oct 2004 piece posted at LegalAffairs.

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