It’s no surprise that the movie Spotlight has been nominated for a best picture Oscar. The critics have been predicting big wins for the movie, and not without justification. It really is a terrific film in so many ways. But I am not writing about Spotlight to add one more glowing review, for I’m no movie reviewer. The truth is, I see very few movies. In fact, of the eight films nominated for best picture, Spotlight is the only one I’ve seen. I may get around to seeing some of the others, but not before they come out on Netflix. That’s the way I operate. But I made an exception in Spotlight’s case, and that’s because Spotlight has an important story to tell, one that is personally important to me. It’s no news to anyone familiar with my new book that I’m a Catholic with a keen interest in the priest scandal. But as a Catholic, I come from the George Weigel school that believes that the Spotlight team of the Boston Globe did a great service to society by uncovering the huge scandal of abuse and cover-up in the Church. Here is what Weigel says in his excellent analysis of the priest scandal, The Courage to Be Catholic:
It was a serious mistake for some Catholic leaders and Catholic traditionalists to argue that the crisis was created by a media feeding frenzy. It was not. The crisis was, and is, the Church’s crisis. . . . Moreover . . . the Church owes the press a debt of gratitude. Because of the press, some sexual predators have been arrested and jailed. Because of the press, the authorities were able to locate predators like Paul Shanley and former Dallas priest Rudy Kos before they could do any more damage to young minds and souls; in both instances, Church leaders had failed to protect either the Church or society. Because of the press, the Catholic Church has been forced to recognize that it is in more trouble than its leaders and people might have imagined (Weigel, 2002, pp. 52–53).
Indeed, the Pulitzer awarded to the Spotlight journalists was well deserved. And their excellent work deserved to be memorialized in a movie worthy of its subjects. Kudos to the Spotlight journalists, and kudos to Tom McCarthy and all the people who made Spotlight such an outstanding film.
But as I said at the beginning, this is not a movie review. What I want to focus on instead is the Pandora’s box buried not too far from the surface of Spotlight’s narrative. I am talking about the subject of sexual abuse and its theoried causes: psychological, environmental, ecclesial, and otherwise. Let’s face it. What makes this story so compelling is the fact that an institution that advertises itself as holy actually became a quite dangerous place for kids. How did things get so bad?
Actually I happen to know a little bit about the subject matter from personal experience. You see, back in 1974, I was a young Catholic boy, just starting to venture out into the world of community involvement and activism. That year, I had become a man-in-uniform, entering the Cub Scouts in the fourth grade. And I made another big decision that year as well. I decided to become an altar boy. Attending Mass at St. Bernard’s in Los Angeles every Sunday with my family no doubt gave me the bug. And so it was on my first day of altar boy training that I met the young and charismatic priest Fr. Ted Llanos. Fr. Ted, himself brand new to the priesthood, was in charge of altar boy training, and every year, as the end of school and the beginning of summer fast approached, Fr. Ted would take a huge bus full of altar boys on the annual trip to Magic Mountain. But some of Fr. Ted’s outings with altar boys included only a small number of us. I was one of Fr. Ted’s favorites, he told me, “just like John was the favorite Apostle of Jesus.” So in 1977, you can imagine how special I felt to be part of a select few (I think there were three of us) who got invited to go see a brand new blockbuster movie with Fr. Ted—Star Wars.
Let me make it clear that Fr. Ted did not lay a finger on me that night. So why am I relating the story? If you look into Fr. Ted’s personnel file, (see the link above) you will see that taking kids to the movies was part of Fr. Ted’s MO. No, Father Ted didn’t touch me the night that we went to see Star Wars. But then, I wasn’t the last kid dropped off that night either. And that fact has haunted me ever since I came across the police records. For it is a virtual certainty that some of Fr. Ted’s victims were my friends and classmates. The other two boys that I remember at the movies that night were two of my closest elementary school buddies. . . .
I have many happy memories of my childhood—a childhood that was more carefree than what my own kids and their peers experience. Gone are the days when kids delivered the evening paper on their bikes, when they would wander all over town with their friends without any adult supervision whatsoever—to the drug store to get an ice cream cone, to the movies with their buddies. Gone are the days of the carefree childhood that is depicted in so many old-time movies. And it is because of people like Fr. Ted Llanos that those days are gone forever.
So when the subject of child sexual abuse is raised, the question as to its causes is never far from my mind. What made somebody like Fr. Ted tick? And why are there so many more abusers today than in my parents’ generation and before? What factors in the environment might be responsible for the proliferation of abuse in recent decades, making it unsafe to be a child in America?
There are different schools of thought on this question, and pet theories unfortunately tend more to be influenced by a person’s politics than by a respect for the truth and evidence. And it is a disrespect for the facts and for truth that makes the search for a real solution that much more difficult to come by. This is where Spotlight misses the mark too. For the movie hews quite faithfully to the politically correct interpretation of the scandal. (And let’s be honest here. If it failed to do so, the movie would not have been so popular with critics.) The movie metes out justice to all the usual suspects, and they receive their politically correct sentencing: Homosexuality is innocent even though 81% of the victims were male. And celibacy is guilty, guilty, guilty.
Many people are angry at the Church for the scandal, and that certainly comes through in the movie. But of course we don’t need the movie to remind us of the anger. For the anger in the movie is but a portrait of our own anger—yours and mine. Yes, it is a picture of my anger too. I’m angry at the Church, yes—angry at the priests who did these unspeakable things and angry at the Bishops who covered it up. But let me tell you who else I am angry at. I’m angry at the people in the media who have made a political football out of such a serious issue. Yes, we need to discuss the priest scandal, and we need to understand its causes. Getting to the bottom of this thing could help us to understand the causes of sexual abuse better. And maybe, if we understood the problem better, we might be able to offer help and treatment for people like Fr. Ted before they become such a menace to our children. But what should be clear from the newspapers is that we are not anywhere close to understanding the root causes of sexual abuse. Nor are we close to finding a reliable treatment, for the problem in our country is only getting worse. Which only means that it is no longer safe to be a kid in America.
I’m angry at the media because, for going on fourteen years now, they have shown nothing but the greatest enthusiasm for reporting anything related to the scandal, but at the same time have demonstrated not the slightest bit of intellectual curiosity as to the causes. For they have assumed from the very beginning that they already understand the causes. The fault lies exclusively with the Church, they say. And one area that receives special condemnation is the Church’s teaching on sexuality—especially the practice of clerical celibacy.
If I believed the canned explanation for the scandal that has been spoon-fed to us for fourteen years now, I would not be a Catholic today. But today I am more Catholic and orthodox in my practice than ever, and my son, Johnny, is proud to be an altar server. People need to understand that there are much better explanations for the scandal than the ones being proffered by the media. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog. (And it was also a major reason for writing my book.)
Now that Oscar nominations have been announced, there will be a campaign for Oscar to match the one for the White House. For the next month, Spotlight and the other nominated movies will be contending for the media spotlight and for academy votes. So for the next month, the spotlight will be on Spotlight right here at newwalden.org. I am going to talk about the movie’s analysis of the priest scandal. I am going to talk about celibacy and the Church’s teachings on sexuality. And I’m also going to talk about Fr. Ted. My hope is that we can have an honest discussion about the scandal, one that transcends politics, one that is guided by “the love of pure truth,” to borrow a phrase from Thomas À Kempis. And if that sounds just too idealistic, then, if not for “the love of pure truth,” perhaps, at the very least, we can set aside politics for the love of our children. I certainly hope so.
Weigel, G. (2002). The Courage to Be Catholic — Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. New York, New York, United States of America: Basic Books.