'Spotlight' and the Value of Truth-telling

By Julie Polter 11-18-2015
Spotlight cast
Spotlight cast, via Open Road Films

Early in the film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that exposed the decades-long cover-up of sex abuse by Catholic church leaders, a Globe reporter is shown at Mass with her grandmother. The priest, launching his homily, says, “Knowledge is one thing. Faith is another.”

In a simplistic film, this binary statement might set the tone for a black-and-white portrait of journalists as pure heroes and people of faith as solely hypocrites and worse. But Spotlight works with characters not caricatures; not one-dimensional heroes and villains, but real people who sometimes choose expediency and sometimes courage. No one is shown to be flawless, not even the reporters and editors who do great good in bringing to light systemic crimes.

But the movie does illustrate quite clearly one tension between knowledge and faith: The guardians of institutions, including churches, can fear knowledge to the point of pathology. There were individual Catholic priests who reported suspected abuse by their peers decades before the Globe took on the story: They were silenced and reassigned. Victims who came forward were ignored, discredited, or quietly paid off. In the name of protecting the reputation of the Church, and its power and assets, men who claimed to be of God made it possible for more and more children to be raped. As one reporter puts it in the film, “They knew, and they let it happen.”

Perhaps some Protestants still assume this problem is unique to the Catholic Church. It’s true that the sheer size of the Catholic Church, the shape of its hierarchy, and the criminal negligence by those high up, enhanced by the Church’s additional power in cities and regions like Boston with a large and established Catholic population, meant that the abuse was allowed to spread and become systemic in a way that it might not in other church structures. The list at the end of Spotlight of hundreds of places in the U.S. and around the world where sex abuse by Catholic priests has been uncovered reinforces this assumption.

But the sexual abuse of children is not unique to the Catholic church; sweeping it under the rug does not require an international hierarchy. Abuse and systemic cover-ups have been found in a multitude of Protestant institutions, small and large, including denominational and nondenominational churches and parachurch organizations.

Boz Tchividjian, law professor at Liberty University, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (and grandson of American evangelist Billy Graham) argues that the response of Protestant churches and parachurches to sexual abuse is actually worse than that of the Catholic Church. And given the number of Protestant church structures, there is no one easy way to track down abusers and bring them to justice.

Church leaders in this day and age who don’t have in place protocols and trainings to protect children from adults who may be predators are naïve at best. Or, they have fallen for that most insidious of biblical misuse, “the Bible says we should deal with this in private.” The gospel of John says that “the truth shall set you free.” I suspect that is too facile a promise for most who have been attacked by sexual predators. But I view Spotlight as a reminder that truth is not the enemy of faith — it is intrinsic to it. Nor are transparency and accountability the enemies of the gospel. But sometimes people of faith are.

Photo: Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Julie Polter is Senior Associate Editor at Sojourners.

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