Why every Religious Leader must see “Spotlight”


Spotlight is a film about the two institutions I hold most dear: newspapers and the Church, set in Boston, the city I have claimed as home.

I left the film full of rage, despondent, and convicted-  if you serve any religious institution, you need to see this film.

Spotlight is the cautionary tale of an institution that is more invested in self-protection than the protection of the vulnerable.

This is non-neogotiable: If you plan to attend to the tender spiritual lives of people, you need to know and see what damage any of us or our institutions can do. Ministry is an awesome responsibility, which is part of what makes it such meaningful work.  The flip-side of this power and intimacy in people’s lives and souls is the potential for enormous damage. I wish our ordination vows included the promise to “do no harm.”

There are plenty of strong reviews of the film: Vulture, Wall Street Journal, NPR, New York Times, The New Yorker, Variety, the Roman Catholic magazine America, and the definitive review by Ty Burr from the Boston Globe. Here, I’m less interested in whether this is a good film ( near unanimous reviews think it is, and I do too), and more interested in what we who lead religious institutions might learn and do.

Maurice Timothy Reidy, the executive editor of the Roman Catholic America magazine wrote he left the film with “the nagging thought that the abuse scandal is something that all Catholics have to reckon with in some fashion.” I would argue that anyone invested in institutions needs to reckon with the institutional power and responsibility made visible in this film.

When institutions get too big to fail, too powerful to be challenged, lives are damaged, as the (supposed) good of the institution is prioritized over the individual. Real, human bodies and souls are inevitably harmed, with aftershocks of trauma spreading through surrounding families, neighborhoods, and entire cities. The victims are actual humans, but their humanity is overwhelmed by shadow cast by large institutions.

Clergy sexual abuse is a most despicable sin: a violation of the autonomy and dignity of a Child of God, a betrayal of the awesome responsibility to nurture someone’s soul, and an abuse of the power and privilege of religious leadership.  When institutions are protect or cover up of such abuse, a second violation occurs- the (supposed) preservation of the institution over the truth and humanity of the victim/survivor. The institution is implicitly considered more important than the dignity and well-being of individual and the community.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times put it this way:

“When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaboration is not easy. Challenging deeply entrenched, widely respected authority can be very scary.”

Director Tom McCarthy described the battle between the Globe reporters and the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Boston as a case of “Goliath versus Goliath.”

Needless to say, the institution of the Church does not come out looking good in Spotlight. Without spoiling a plot point,  he Boston Globe is not a spotless institution in the film either. But the dogged investigative reporting that broke the story is also testimony to how an institution can use their resources, power, and platform for good. The Spotlight team and the Boston Globe, as an institution, made visible what others would have prefered stayed in the shadows.

Standing before the leaders of the religious institutions of his day, Jesus said:

2Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. ~ Luke 12: 2-3

For those of use who take the New Testament seriously, we are called to shine a spotlight on what remains in the shadows.

Sometimes our institutions become so insular, so self-referential, so ingrown, we need eyes from outside to see just how dysfunctional they’ve become. We needed outsiders from Amnesty International and the Associated Press to reveal the institutional support of the CIA & US Army in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. We need the outsiders of #BlackLivesMatter to expose the institutional racism in policing. It is no accident that the trailer before Spotlight was for The Big Short, a story of outsiders who exposed the deception of the institutions of big banks and high finance in the recent housing market collapse.

A leitmotif through the film is the roles of outsiders in the accountability of institutions. Victim’s lawyer Mitchell Garabedian is from Boston but he’s Armenian, and thus outside the established Irish-Catholic power structures of Boston. The Boston Globe editor Marty Baron is not from Boston and he’s Jewish. Baron, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker writes, “is mocked for being, as one insider labels him, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” but it is precisely his status as an outsider that allows him to initiate the quest.”

Any individual, insider or outsider,  who has ever tried to call out the bad behavior of Goliath institutions knows how scary it can be to stand before the giant, especially a giant cloaked in holiness. We who have the awesome responsibility of spiritual leadership of religious institutions also bear the responsibility to make it easier for individuals to come forward- that means being explicit and public in talking about abuse in our communities, looking into the shadows, and shining a spotlight.

Spotlight‘s tagline is “Break the story. Break the silence.” If you sit through until the very end of the credits, a hotline number comes up, saying something like “If you have been affected by the events of this film, reach out.”  I was too wrecked at the end of the film to catch the suggested contact information, but these are resources I know to break the silence:

For Religious Leadership: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org 

For Clergy Abuse Survivors: http://www.snapnetwork.org 

Visibility can offer healing for those who have been hidden in the shadows. Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen interviewed clergy sexual abuse survivor Joe Crowley. “Watching (Fr. Paul) Shanley answer to criminal charges was the real beginning of my recovery,” Crowley said.  Institutional accountability matters, and visibility can heal. Cullen opines, “Joe Crowley knows movies and he thinks this one is well-made, well-acted, well done in every way. But more importantly, it is a cinematic vindication of those like him, who suffered in silence for years, who still suffer, who live with memories that don’t fade when the screen goes dark and the lights come on.”

The lights are on. May we have eyes to see.


Three Disclaimers, because I will get emails about this:

  1. If you want to complain about how “the media” never tell the story of the good religious institutions do, this is the wrong time to do so. That’s called deflection. Now is the time to look unflinchingly at our own institutions and complicity in institutional systems of oppression. (And frankly, I’m not sure “we” are owed anything, but that’s a matter for a different blog post.)
  2. If you want to argue that this is a work of art, and thus dramatized for the film, you are welcome to read the 2002 non-fiction accounts here, equally as damning: http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/special-reports/2002/01/06/church-allowed-abuse-priest-for-years/cSHfGkTIrAT25qKGvBuDNM/story.html 
  3. If you try to make the claim that your Mainline Protestant/Evangelical Christian /Orthodox Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Atheist institution is somehow immune from abuse, I refer you to the links above. And yes, I know that there are camps, sports teams, after school programs, coaches, schools and others who have perpetrated abuse and cover-up. The particulars of the Roman Catholic Church clergy abuse and cover-up detailed in Spotlight does not insulate you or your beloved institution from the history of past abuse and the possibility of future harm. This falls on all.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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  1. “Do no harm” would be a great addition to any vows by which church leaders take their position. They become physicians to the soul, hands and feet of the greatest healer ever. To do anything other than heal is in direct opposition to their purpose. Thanks Laura–I will go see this, with plans to get comfortably numb afterwards–bracing for being profoundly disturbed.

    1. The slogan is doctor/healer of souls, but their formation is focused almost exclusively towards administration, sales and doctrinal purity. Studying 4 years of philosophy/theology or even a doctorate in philosophy/theology/etc does not make a healer of souls. They get some time of practices before ordination, but it is counting money, cleaning pews, washing purificators, etc. This doesn’t prepare them either. They loathe the poor, the needy, the suffering and only deal with it with a 10 foot pole entering and leaving like a thief in the night. They are strangely cold and condescending. Many of the abuse stories took place when young priests arrived to their first assignments – hot off the press from the seminary. Their structure is totally inbred with little space for contrary voices. I would say that despite many efforts that have been made, very little real progress has been made.

  2. Yes. I have not seen the movie yet, but your insights are right on. And it is not just the Roman Catholic “whore of Babylon”, or conservatives, or the big corporate whatevers. It is often the church, the liberal church, our church, the comfortable church that does this.

  3. Great post. An amen from Reinhold Niebuhr
    “Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values.”
    ― Beyond Tragedy

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