I watched the 2016 movie Spotlight on a long-haul flight. I had put off watching it when it was first released, because I was afraid that I would find the depiction of child sexual abuse too upsetting. As it turns out, the film spends almost no time focused on the actual abuse. This is a movie not about the abusers, but about bystanders choosing to overlook the abuse.
For those of you who are not familiar with the film, here is a bit about it: the term “Spotlight” refers to a small group of reporters employed by the Boston Globe newspaper to engage in long and complex investigations. In 2001, the Spotlight team discovered that the Boston Catholic archdiocese had been covering up sexual abuse by priests for decades and shifting offending priests from one parish to another. The articles published in early 2002 shocked the public and ultimately led to the resignation of Boston’s powerful Catholic cardinal Bernard Law.
Of course, child sexual abuse had been taking place in the Boston area for years and years before the Boston Globe broke its story. It becomes clear in the film that abuse allegations had been finding their way to Globe journalists on and off for quite a while before the Spotlight unit finally began its investigation. At the start of the film, the newspaper hires a new editor: Marty Baron is a Jew from Florida, taking the helm of a newspaper in a city with a deep and pervasive Catholic culture. He meets with the Spotlight reporters and joins them in a brainstorming session to come up with a new target for their investigation. When a reporter mentions the abuse allegations, the editor pounces and suggests that this could be an important story. The reporters themselves are sceptical–after all, they’ve written a few assorted stories over the years. What need is there for more coverage? Ultimately, the Spotlight unit begins its investigation and uncovers not only the extent of the problem but also the way the Archdiocese has been covering it up.
I was so struck by the fact that it was the Jewish editor from Florida who recognised the significance of this story–not the Catholic reporters. Appalling things had been happening for generations in the Boston area, but it took the arrival of a complete outsider to open up the journalists to a new perspective. The movie pushes each of us to ask, “What are we not seeing? How are our own pre-existing biases stopping us from recognising potentially horrifying behaviours?”
This week, we heard from two prominent columnists at the Murdoch press that Cardinal Pell couldn’t possibly be guilty of the allegations against him. Andrew Bolt wrote, “Declaration: I have met Pell perhaps five times in my life and like him. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian. He is a scapegoat, not a child abuser. In my opinion.” Miranda Devine wrote, “It’s devastating because I don’t believe that Pell, who I know slightly and admire greatly, could be guilty of sexually assaulting two choirboys in a busy cathedral after Sunday mass when he was archbishop of Melbourne in 1996.” What both of them are saying is basically, Cardinal Pell is a very intelligent and likable person. Therefore he is incapable of perpetrating evil on others. Therefore his victims must be lying.
Twenty-five years ago, I attended my very first seminar on clergy sexual abuse. It was conducted at my annual rabbinical conference, and I sat in a room together for dozens of other rabbis–some of whom were beloved friends and all of whom were respected colleagues. We watched a video showing how abuse might occur. The person depicted on the screen was a caricature: someone whose behaviour and mannerisms were so bizarre and inappropriate that you would have had to have been blind not to pick up on them. At the time, I looked around and thought, when abuse is exposed among us, it won’t be some strange person who is the perpetrator; it will be one of the people in this room.
I would suggest that the most pernicious reason why abusers can offend again and again is that we adults take the side of the fellow adult that we know, trust and respect over the words of a child who is suffering. It is a natural human tendency to think well of the people in our lives. How incredibly difficult to come to the realisation that we are wrong–the person we thought was so worthy of admiration has inflicted terrible harm on a child. Easier not to believe the child than to see our own world view so shaken up.
Two years after I finished rabbinical school, the unthinkable happened: a rabbinical student was expelled weeks before his ordination when it was discovered that he was a sociopath who had been sexually assaulting female students at the school for years. He also happened to have been the university roommate of the president of the seminary. When his victims would threaten to go to the seminary president to expose what he had done, he would gleefully say, “Who do you think he’s going to believe? You or his university roommate?!” So the assaults remained secret for a very long time.
All of us need to see ourselves as being that potential safe person who might trusted by a child with a shocking revelation. Perhaps we would do well to each ask ourselves—if someone came to me tomorrow and made an accusation against someone I knew, liked and respected, what would I do? Would I be prepared to have my eyes opened? Would I be prepared to have my foundations rocked? And if not, who am I? Shabbat shalom.