(I wrote what follows while over the Atlantic aboard a United Airlines flight. I just discovered that this Dreamliner has Internet access. Greetings from somewhere over the Labrador Sea.)
On the flight back to the US, I noticed that United is showing Spotlight, the Best Picture winner, as part of its in-flight viewing. I was very pleased to see this; I’ve wanted to see the movie since I heard about it, but films like that rarely come to my part of the world. I thought I would have to see it on iTunes or Amazon Prime. Soon after the plane took off from Frankfurt, I settled back to watch the movie.
A little more than two hours later, I was in tears. That shocked me, to be honest. It has been 14 years since those days, and I had forgotten a lot of that material, and buried some pretty painful memories of what it felt like to deal with the material when the Boston Globe started breaking its stories about the massive child sex abuse crisis in the Catholic archdiocese, and a cover-up that involved not only Cardinal Bernard Law, but quite a number of people in the establishment of that very Catholic city – including, the movie makes clear, some decision-makers at the Globe who were given reason to believe there was a story there as far back as the 1990s, but who didn’t want to see what was right in front of their faces.
It is hard to find someone more cynical than I am about the media business, but I tell you, watching this movie made me so proud of the Globe reporters and editors on the Spotlight team, but also of my profession. I knew most of the narrative portrayed in the film, but I did not fully grasp until seeing this movie how difficult it must have been to tell this story in Boston. There’s a scene near the middle of the film in which one of the Catholic good ol’ boys (do they have Yankee good ol’ boys) is talking to Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor in charge of the Spotlight team, trying to dissuade him from doing the investigation. Robinson, a lapsed Catholic, is himself is one of the good ol’ boys, and his old friend appeals to tribal solidarity. The new Globe editor, Marty Baron, whose idea it was to pursue the story, is not from Boston, says the guy, and he’s a Jew. What does he know about us?
I smiled at that. The very first story I ever wrote about the abuse scandal was back in 2000 or 2001, when I was a columnist for the New York Post. I can’t remember how the story even came to me, but it involved the adolescent son of working-class immigrants in the Bronx, and three priests at his local parish. The kid’s father was back in Latin America, and his mother was having trouble with him acting out. Being a Catholic, she sent him to the local church, hoping that the fathers there could talk some sense into the boy. They ended up passing him around among them as a sex toy.
When the kid’s father arrived in the US and found out what was going on, he went straight to the Archdiocese of New York. He met with an official there, who offered him a settlement check in exchange for signing a contract that made the Archdiocese’s lawyers his family’s legal representative in this case – in other words, to bury the thing.
That kid’s father might have been a working man from Latin America who didn’t speak a word of English, but he understood what was happening. He went out and hired a Jewish lawyer, and sued the church on behalf of his son. Smart man. Often, it takes an outsider.
The most affecting scenes in the film are the ones involving adult victims telling their stories to reporters. It probably startled many viewers to see how emotionally shaky these victims are. But it’s often true. I think of an abuse survivor I used to know in New York, a man who was by then in his late 50s or early 60s, and who was a mess. He was a recovering alcoholic, and had been extremely promiscuous with other men – many of them priests – until he got sober. He had been raped as a kid by a priest. When as a boy he told his Irish Catholic working class mother that he had been sodomized by this priest, she slapped him hard and told him never to speak that way about God’s priests. The forced sodomy at the hands of this molester priest continued unabated. The kid was all alone in the world. The priest, who is no longer alive, rose high in the Catholic hierarchy, and his name is remembered today with honor.
Watching Spotlight, I thought about that Catholic kid who was a ruin of a man, and I wondered whatever became of him. I found him difficult to be around sometimes, because he was so jittery, just like the character based on Phil Saviano in Spotlight. That New York man became a good source for me; having been sexually involved for much of his life with priests, he had deep knowledge of where the Archdiocese buried its clerical bodies, so to speak. Had I met him before I started covering the abuse story, and learned how extremely damaging child rape (especially at the hands of a priest) can be, I would have been exactly like the Globe editors in the movie who dismissed Saviano years earlier, assuming that he was a nut.
I winced at a scene later in the film when one of the Catholic good ol’ boys tells Robby that the Globe shouldn’t run the story because people need the Church “now more than ever” (this is shortly after 9/11), and besides, Cardinal Law “is not perfect,” but he’s a good man, and we can’t let a few bad apples, blah blah blah. I had Catholic establishment people – more than one – telling me, an observant and quite conservative Catholic at the time – the same thing. Except the phrase that they tended to use was, “I know the bishops haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory, but …”. It’s stunning to think of it now, in 2016, after all we know, but there were quite a few good Catholics back then who rationalized ignoring the horror in just that way.
For me, the most emotionally wrenching scene comes when Globe reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) reads the formerly sealed records in which Margaret Gallant, a woman in whose family seven – seven! – boys were molested by Father John Geoghan, wrote to
Cardinal Law Cardinal Law’s predecessor, Cardinal Medeiros, begging him to help. [NFR: A reader rightly corrects me; other documents show that Law was very well aware of Geoghan’s history, including this letter to his predecessor. — RD] (Rezendes reads more than just that document, but the film makes it stand for them all, because it was the most shocking of the lot.) How well I remember reading the Margaret Gallant letter when the Globe published it. I was sitting at my desk at National Review, and I felt like I was physically coming apart. How any human being, much less a cardinal archbishop, can read something like that and not move heaven and earth to do justice – this I could not understand. Bernard Law is a morally depraved man. Pope John Paul II is now a saint of the Catholic Church, and though I am no longer Catholic (therefore not required to recognize his canonization), I believe he really is a saint. Nevertheless, it was Pope John Paul II who reassigned Bernard Law to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the most honored churches in the Roman Catholic world. The depraved indifference to the suffering of victims pervaded the Catholic institution.
I had only one child at the time, and he was only three years old. I would read stories, or court documents that had been released (Judge Constance Sweeney in Boston, an Irish Catholic jurist who put them all into the public record, is one of the heroes of this story), and I could not help thinking, if this had been my son, the bishops would have gone out of their way to crush me and my family, just like they did to so many Catholic families. The thought tormented me. After I started writing about it for NR, people would call me out of the blue and start telling their stories. Victims, or family members of victims. Many of these accounts I had no way of confirming. Most of them were somewhat confirmable, but absent the source producing documents or being willing to go on the record, my hands were tied. Some of my sources were priests who would inevitably say these stories need to get reported, that the stables needed cleaning, and asking me, a faithful Catholic, to be the one to tell it.
In nearly every single case, I was powerless to do anything, because I could not convince these sources to talk. In one case, the source was a woman who worked for her local diocese. Her husband had left her, and she was raising kids alone. She needed her job, and wouldn’t go on the record. Even though I had independently confirmed some of the details she gave me, I couldn’t write it without her. There was too much at risk to her livelihood, she said. This woman was out in the Midwest, and I worked for a little opinion magazine that had no travel budget for things like this. The sense of powerlessness I felt in those days, having to carry that knowledge, and being unable to do anything about it, nearly drove me crazy.
I’m actually kind of serious. I was consumed by anger at the Church. Every now and then I’ll run across something online that I wrote on NR’s blog back then, and I’ll be embarrassed by how strident my prose was. I was a Catholic who was in a lot of pain, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was having my faith pulled out of me like a torturer armed with pliers wrenching the nails out of the fingers of his prisoner.
Finally, in the summer of 2002, my wife prevailed on me to see a Catholic therapist over my anger. That’s how I ended up in the hands of Phil Mango, a quack who, when I published something criticizing John Paul’s inaction on the scandal, screamed – literally, screamed – at me in a therapy session that I was a “new Luther,” and telling me that my wife was going to leave me if I continued criticizing the Church in public. I should have slapped the guy, but I was shell-shocked, and took it. I even paid him his fee. Later, when I got home and told my wife what had happened, she called Mango and read him the riot act. I wrote demanding my money back for that session, and ending our relationship. He sent the money back. I should have reported him to the state authorities for malpractice. Those were crazy times. He was tight with the Legionaries of Christ and their Regnum Christi group. It came out later that the revered head of the Legion, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, was a serial molester who had a secret mistress and children.
Sorry, I digress. Anyway, the most emotionally wrenching scene for me was the one where Rezendes is breaking down on the back porch of a newspaper colleague’s apartment. He’s finally seen the depths of the church’s depravity in Boston, and, as he puts it, “something cracked.” He says he was raised Catholic, and had drifted from the Church, but always thought he would return. Now, knowing what he knows, that path is closed, and it’s tearing him alive.
Something cracked. For me, that something cracked in 2005, after a filthy liar of a priest of considerable charm got close to my family before a friend and I accidentally uncovered the truth about him. I wrote a story in the Dallas Morning News about it, because my family was attending that parish at the time. I got an angry letter from a guy in the parish with whom I was friendly, telling me that he’s on the parish council, and all those on the council knew the truth about Father Clay, but decided not to disclose it to the rest of the parish. This guy was defending their secrecy. It was for the good of the church. They accepted into their parish a priest who was accused of molestation and suspended by his bishop up in the Northeast, and chose not to tell their fellow parishioners – or, as it happens, the Bishop of Fort Worth (it was a complicated story). Yet I was the evil one for outing him. The betrayer of the tribe.
That was it. There was no more tribe for me to betray. I lost my Catholic faith. Gone. Something cracked.
I formally left Catholicism for Orthodoxy a decade ago, and before long fell right back into the same kind of mess, fighting battles within the Church among bishops and insiders, a war I was no longer equipped emotionally or spiritually to wage. I don’t do that anymore, not because there aren’t important issues at stake, but because I can’t handle it, to be honest. I tell people that once you’ve stared into that Palantir, it does something to you, and you’re not the same anymore. I cheer for those within Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism, or any faith who are willing and able to take on the institutional powers that seek to destroy the weak to protect themselves, but I’m useless on that front today.
How strange it was to see Spotlight on the way home from one of the most spiritually moving and meaningful journeys of my life – one spent surrounded by faithful Catholics, in very Catholic settings (a monastery, in Italy). I think one reason I love the Norcia monks so much is that they embody what is best about the Catholic Church. Since visiting Norcia for the first time in 2014, I’ve told Catholic friends who are angry and afraid over what’s going on in their Church to go to Norcia and be calmed, and even healed. Now, I would add, “Go to San Benedetto del Tronto and talk to the Tipiloschi.” I would give this advice to any Christian, no matter what their church or tradition, who is tempted to despair over the brokenness in the Body of Christ. Don’t misunderstand: I am firmly committed to Orthodoxy, though it pains me somewhat to feel separated at the ecclesial level from the Norcia monks and the Tipiloschi. But I can live with that, because God sees our hearts, and my faith tells me we are somehow in the same mystical communion, though not visible. One healing thing I have learned from practicing Orthodoxy – something that I wish I had known in my bones as a Catholic – is that it is possible to live a deeply Christian life of prayer, communion, confession, fasting, Scripture reading, and all the rest, without dwelling on what the ecclesial institution does or does not do. In fact, for some of us, it might be the only way to live a deeply Christian life.
In fact, I think it might be providential that I saw Spotlight at the conclusion of this pilgrimage. It doesn’t weaken my faith, or cause me to doubt anything I saw or heard over the past week. Truth is, reliving all that – “all that” – in a two-hour film made me understand how important it is to live our religious lives with integrity and responsibility. That means praying, reading Scripture, and deeply grounding oneself in the faith. If you think being a Christian is simply about knowing things – as in, getting the doctrinal questions correct — you are setting yourself up for a very great fall. Trust me on this one: it’s what happened to me. You can only run from factual truths like what the Spotlight team uncovered for so long, and if you haven’t formed your heart all along according to spiritual, even metaphysical, truths, your faith may not stand.
Spotlight reminds me how much I took for granted as a Catholic back then, before the time of testing. I trusted the institution – I didn’t just trust it, I idolized it – and I trusted my own judgment. I thought I knew where the lines of good and evil ran within the Church, and between the Church and the World. And I thought the main thing about being a Catholic Christian was assenting to the teachings, receiving the sacraments, and following the rules. Those things are all important, but the main thing is conversion of the heart. The heart is deceitful above all things, as the saying goes, and the unconverted heart is a mirrored labyrinth in which it is fatally easy to lose oneself. Spotlight shows one of its strengths at the very end, when Robby, played by Michael Keaton, discovers the truth about himself: that at one time he too chose to look away from the truth, preferring the safety and comfort of illusion.
The scene that made me break down was the very last one, on the day that the Globe broke the first of over 600 stories, setting off a chain reaction of global import. The phones at the paper rang off the hook, with ordinary people calling the reporters to say it happened to me too. It took the tireless courage of victims’ advocates like Phil Saviano, the bravery of victims willing to go public, priests like Fr. Tom Doyle, lay Catholics who spoke out, and journalists willing to buck a powerful establishment to tell the truth, for the truth to set those poor souls free – and in fact, for the truth to set all Catholics, and even all Christians, free from the lie that evil like this doesn’t happen with us.
It is better to be a martyr to the truth than to live by lies. The life you save may be your own – or your child’s. And so might the Church you save.
All of us Christians in the West have entered into a difficult time, a darkening time, a time of trial. Nothing could be more important now than to ground ourselves in the unsentimental truth about the human condition. We can’t afford the false pieties that led so many people to support a corrupt system that traduced the Gospel and caused so much agony. All of us are capable of deceiving ourselves to protect our idols. I have never talked about the abuse scandal with Father Cassian, prior of the Norcia monastery, nor would I ever put him on the spot about that topic. But the words he said to me at the conclusion of our first meeting in 2014 come to mind now, as I’m finishing this reflection. We had been talking generally about the signs of the times, and the trials that all of us Christians are going to undergo. Though he is profoundly a man of the Church, Father Cassian is also a man who does not give one the impression of having a mind occluded by illusion. He is a man of gravity and depth, and one gathers that his is a hard-won serenity. With that in mind back in 2014, I asked him where he found his hope.
“In the Lord,” he said, firmly. “And only in the Lord. Nothing else lasts. He is the only one who will not disappoint.”
Wisdom! Let us attend!