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The Haunting of Spotlight

Students ask me if the emotional toll of listening to their problems exhausts me. In my work as a chaplain, I am a sleuth looking for problems, pathways, and solutions to what plagues twentysomethings. Nevertheless, stories of child molestation and pedophilia are a poison on the soul that knock me down every time I hear them. On that note, the first time I watched Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” (2015), I was traumatized. I shook from moments of dialogue in the film I heard in my own work on such cases. These were sentences, claims, questions, challenges, all with the same motive—evasion—to protect a system that produced a predator.

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“Spotlight” has the usual structure we find in similar docudramas about journalists discovering and whistleblowing major scandals, like “All the President’s Men” (Pakula, 1976), “The Insider” (Mann, 1999) and later in “The Post” (Spielberg, 2017). Meaning, many scenes are meetings about plans, findings, courthouse adjudication, juxtaposed with scenes of characters discussing those meetings. There are sequences of quiet research in cellars, the search for a golden-fleece-like set of documents that reveal all the secrets, interviews with experts, witnesses, victims, mixed with scenes about the struggles of personal and professional life, mixed with ethical questions about the whole system.

Having closed my last case of preacher misconduct (of adults) six months ago and in light of recent news about the arrest of an alleged billionaire child sex trafficker in New York, I decided to rewatch “Spotlight.” While the Boston and Epstein cases were researched by professional journalists, I’m a mere chaplain and college professor who gets pulled into such cases by people who could not find anyone else to support them. Further, there are fundamental differences between the cases of Muslim preachers, the Boston Archdiocese, and Jeffrey Epstein. 

Nevertheless, all of the stories haunt you.

It took me years since my first case investigating preacher misconduct to figure out that something is different about the stories of a survivor of sexual assault than the survivor of war. When you are a survivor of a genocide, you are at least a statistic but at best a human. People sympathize. When you are the victim of sexual assault by someone prominent, however, you become a prop. An object. A community of people who do not know how to react except to shut themselves down decide instead to shut you down.

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Dirty preachers target young people who are easy to silence: lower socioeconomic class, broken family structure, and an eagerness to please the Divine. They lure them in, step by step, with a mixture of praise, pious gestures, and the steady crossing of taboos, until they trap their victims. You are trapped when you are too frightened to say “no,” too frightened to run, and too frightened to tell anyone anything. I have worked on cases involving as many adult victims as children, and the formula that predators use to pursue adult prey is the same.

In the film, the attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) comments that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to abuse a child. The most common statement from victims in my work has been, “I told [X] and they did not do anything.” In the movie, one victim comments that his mother made cookies for the preacher.

Circles of people around the perpetrators recognize that something is wrong. Some ease their consciences with, “I am just doing my job;” some ignore the hints of corruption; some hide it behind pleasantries. The end result is a long trail of survivors struggling to live long enough to see sunlight the next morning, knowing they might destroy themselves as a way to cope with has been done to them.

Then, the self-appointed pundits haunt you.

In any community of believers, most worshipers are upright, humble people seeking ways to navigate what the world hits them with. All religions provide a well-tread path of healing for wounds. News of a corrupt preacher, thus, paralyzes a community. On top of that, you have to deal with politicians and sycophants.

If the only problem of exposing misconduct was that autodidacts decided to conduct their own investigation, it would be manageable. That happens, but so many others become political activists, using your case, using the victim’s story, using their own personal ambitions as the soapbox upon which they pontificate. Some of these people are sincere, trying to cope by pointing fingers. Others, however, are heartless, using any stepping stone they can—even if those steps are abused children—to elevate their own selves.

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As I type this piece, we see the same happening with the Epstein case. Numerous articles claim to provide inside information either to his life or to his mind. Some are seeking another stake to pound into the heart of the President. Some are linking celebrities to him. Some are critiquing the lifestyles of the wealthy.

In my cases, there were those who argued that religion itself is the problem, even though people of religion were conducting the investigations. There were those who pushed conspiracy theories. In “Spotlight,” Marty Baron’s Jewish bachelor identity became fodder for some to question his integrity. There are those who are convinced that I have an agenda to produce a “reformist Islam” by wiping out the carriers of our sacred traditions, even though I am a leader in the community and my teachers and mentors are immersed in tradition. In fact, it was the conservative scholars who gave the most support in investigations, risking their own reputations.

There were those who argued against all men, as though anything a man does is patriarchal, toxic, and savage. There were those who argued against women, as though any time a woman is in the presence of men, she is a temptation at fault for their misconduct. There were those who argued that such cases should be kept quiet, because terrorists and Islamophobes have already given the community enough of the wrong kinds of attention. There were those who wanted the accused perpetrators and their institutions razed to the ground and anyone who ignored the cases in the past to be exposed, tarred, and feathered.

Most common of all, however, is the moral equivocation: the good from these structures and people exceeds their mistakes. You’ll remember this excuse from Baines to Malcolm in “Malcolm X” (Spike Lee, 1992) to rationalize Elijah Muhammad’s behaviors. Further, some were of the belief that the sins of a fellow believer should be kept hidden, which means that the victims are to be thrown under the same rugs.

Part of the greatness of “Spotlight” is that it avoids the low-hanging-fruit of painting the Church as an evil entity, the likes of which we find in many other films. It wrestles with faith, when it could have dismissed it. Instead, the film focuses on the discovery of a systemic problem that has allowed for the destruction of numerous lives. The very real humans in the film, not realizing that they were endorsing inhumane stances by seeking to keep things quiet, were the exact humans I dealt with in my work. In contrast to the monsters, these attorneys, courthouse staff members, and other laypeople in the middle were not bad people as much as they were shortsighted, afraid to identify ogres as ogres, afraid to discover that the world can be as dark as their own scriptures dictate.

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The responses we witness by preachers in “Spotlight” would be fascinating in a morally relativist world if they were not horrifying in any sensible world. The most shocking—at first—is a priest who confidently claims he molested children but neither raped them nor received any gratification. In other words, he did not benefit from destroying children, so he is not only throwing the rest of the guilty priests under the bus, but he is also freeing himself of any culpability.  

The truly vile response, however, came from Cardinal Law himself giving Baron a courtesy call: explaining he would not be commenting. I had a similar experience. One preacher I was able to get to confess and apologize for his crimes took a moment to praise me for conducting a fair investigation. Later, however, he was saying very horrible things about me. Such people are masters at using manners and pleasantries as a mask for demonic behavior.

I believe the most vile criminal can find reform and redemption, though the main obstacle is narcissism. Instead, something else happens. There is a small window of humility during which a perpetrator is willing to confess and work toward reform. Then, that window slams shut: the narcissism that allows them to believe that they are the voice of God or the protectors of faith overtakes them, and they see themselves as the victims of everything. Victims of their own life experiences, of their own passions, of the demands of leadership and fame. They see themselves as victims of the victims they abused.

They use scripture, tears, and false humility to rally their followers to defend them. We have seen in popular media various on-camera meltdowns by celebrities and candidates accused of such predatory behavior. We have seen their minions support them enough to pay their expenses.

Once I sat in front of a preacher who ran such circles around me with logic that sounded almost rational. We were sitting with a victim and her mother as he tried to dominate the conversation by spewing a narrative painting himself as a compassionate man wanting to reconciliation as a favor to the victim. In the work of religion, I had seen many people do evil things. Here, however, I felt for the first time in my life that I’m in the presence of the Devil himself. He later took a deal with the State, pleading guilty to some horrible charges. Even later, he claimed he pleaded guilty for the sake of peace in the community (and not because of the overwhelming evidence that would be ensuring a long prison sentence); meaning, he lied under oath, something foul in every religious and secular tradition.

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To this day, those cases haunt me: did I do enough for the victim, for the community, and for the perpetrator?

Another subtle, important point in “Spotlight” related to its respect for faith is that the journalists not only loved their work, not only loved the people they were serving, but also loved Boston even if Bostonians did not love them. In my cases, I discovered I had to choose a core team in which everyone was religious, had integrity, and loved the community. When I had teammates who hated the community, they were the most difficult to work with, more concerned about the elevation and protection of their personal brands than the challenges of the investigations.

The movie’s exploration of the dynamics of faith and loyalty are fascinating. All the journalists identify as lapsed Catholics. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) tries to sustain her faith through her grandmother’s faith. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) left the church always having the hope he would return. Richard Sipe (Richard Jenkins) kept to faith in a way that superseded human intervention. But, as Pfeiffer gets deeper into the case, should could not continue. Rezendes has a moment—reading letters confirming the corruptions—in which he “cracked.”

I know that feeling. Hovering through the story of “Spotlight” is Marty Baron. A monk of sorts, out of place as a Jewish executive in a Catholic city. Save for professional work I do—as a Muslim Chaplain and Professor in a Jesuit University—I have pulled away from most community work and most social relationships. I have seen so much darkness. Not wanting to see more, I have become my own quiet ascetic, seeking to immerse myself deeper into the Divine. I recently took a sabbatical from social media because the chatter about Epstein was taking me back to that darkness. What I did not expect, however, was that even though my first viewing of “Spotlight” in an almost empty Thanksgiving night movie theater was traumatic, the second viewing, streaming it on my laptop, was so therapeutic.

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