Monday, November 23, 2015

"Spotlight": My Five-Point Commentary

Steve and I went yesterday to see "Spotlight." Most of you will already know quite a bit about this film, but in case anyone reading this blog doesn't have information about it, it's a depiction of the dramatic story of the gradual awakening of the Boston Globe's investigative "Spotlight" team to the massive ramifications of the abuse story in the Catholic church. It's the story of how, after having been alerted to this by abuse survivors like Phil Saviano of SNAP, the Globe ignored the situation until reports about a single monstrously abusive priest in the Boston archdiocese, John Geoghan, alerted Globe journalists to the fact that there were more abusive priests in the diocese — as many as 90 — hiding in plain sight, whose histories of abuse were known to all kinds of powerful people but above all to the diocese's chief shepherd Cardinal Law, but about whom no one with power to combat the abuse had done anything at all. 

These revelations led to the Globe's historic exposé report in 2002 that ultimately toppled Cardinal Law, who was then "punished" by the Vatican by being whisked away to Rome where he was given a cushy and powerful job within the Vatican. If you want to know more about "Spotlight," here's the Facebook page for the movie. And here's its Twitter site.

Our reaction: we drove away from the theater talking about how the U.S. Catholic bishops just met to ratchet up their attacks on same-sex marriage as an "intrinsic evil," a position they plan to place before Catholic voters in the U.S. in a voting guide designed to herd voters into the GOP voting column. Steve and I and couples like us, same-sex couples who choose to commit our lives to each other in public, loving marital relationships, are evil. Not what the bishops have done: that is not evil.

As I told Steve as we talked about this, and have told friends on Facebook, it's astonishing to me that, just as a movie appears in theaters everyhere shining a spotlight on the direct involvement of a majority of Catholic bishops in covering for priests sexually molesting minors, the bishops have chosen to shine their own spotlight on my life and Steve's life as evil lives. Talk about moral obtuseness of the most intractable form imaginable. Talk about a total lack of self-knowledge or insight into one's own life and behavior undercutting claims to pastoral responsibility in the grossest way possible.

Talk about not seeing what is right in front of one's nose as one chooses to focus, instead, on imaginary (and politically useful) bugbears everywhere around oneself.

Here's what else struck me as I watched:

1. I find it amazing — marvelous, really — that a marginal, embattled organization of abuse survivors and advocates for survivors, the heroic folks who formed SNAP, has gone in two decades from being marginal and embattled to being celebrated in a major movie playing in theaters all over the place this (American) holiday season. This movie is in key respects a paean to SNAP leaders including Phil Saviano and Richard Sipe, a richly deserved paean to them for their willingness to keep on keeping on when no one, including the Globe itself, would pay any attention to them when they first came forth with their explosive reports about the ramification of the abuse situation in the Catholic church.

2. I like how "Spotlight" depicts Globe editor Marty Baron's patient, relentless attempt to keep the paper's investigative team focused on the systemic aspects of the abuse story, when the team was tempted repeatedly to focus on first a single abusive priest, and then on the some 90 priests whose names it ferreted out of archdiocesan parish assignment records. I like how the narrative forces us, the audience, to come to the gradual recognition that the story is even bigger than we had at first dreamed: that it implicates the whole system and its leaders right to the top.

3. Related to that is the way in which the movie continuously reminds us that everyone knew the full story. What was going on had been hidden in plain sight. Parents of abused children — the mother with seven sons raped by a priest — knew. They were bullied into silence, paid to be silent.

The attorneys defending these heinous child molesters knew what was going on. They had made a cottage industry of the abuse situation, and out of running interference for archdiocesan leaders and leaders of religious institutions like Catholic schools. 

The Globe itself knew the story, but chose for years to pretend it was not there, to pretend that activists like Phil Saviano had an "agenda" and were not credible witnesses as a result. The Globe took the easy route of assisting in the cover-up in a city with a significant Catholic population, in which the leaders of the Catholic church controlled everything and could even remove damning documents from publicly accessible legal files.

4. And so "Spotlight" is a story about how we all know the full scope of many evils occurring around us — and we choose to do nothing at all. We choose to close our eyes. We in the U.S. are involved now in a presidential campaign in which the leading candidate of one of our two major political parties can lie boldly about Muslims cheering the destruction of the twin towers — when we and everyone else with a modicum of intelligence know that nothing of the sort happened, and that we're being lied to. 

We are involved in a presidential campaign in which there are open calls from the leaders of one of our political parties to violate the rights of citizens who happen to be of Islamic faith, to require those citizens to register themselves and be monitored. We're involved in a political campaign in which the coarse, overt racist dog whistles of the leaders of one of our two major political parties have resulted in actual violence towards people of color at the political rallies of those leaders.

We know. We do nothing. Many white Catholics will do as they did (60% of them) in the 2014 elections and vote for the political party tearing our nation apart with racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic hate speech. And in casting such votes, they'll have the blessing of the very bishops who have covered up the abuse crisis.

5. We're all enmeshed in systemic evil of truly horrendous proportions — evil found all around us. This is one of the primary reasons I resist the too-easy rhetoric about how the leaders of the Catholic church are singularly evil men. I resist that rhetoric because it is too easy — not because I am unaware of the evil of which these men are capable.

How can I not be aware of that evil, given the evil effects they have had on my life, on Steve's lives, on the lives of many other LGBT people? How can I not be aware of that evil, as I watch "Spotlight" and remember the stories of horrific abuse that began to come to light in a very public way with the 2002 Boston Globe report?

But these are two manifestations of systemic evil among many in the world in which we live, and when we allow ourselves to be energized by self-serving, self-righteous clatter about how uniquely evil the leaders of the Catholic church are, we simultaneously allow ourselves to be diverted from paying attention to how much evil the men buying elections in our country are doing, how much evil the people destroying our environment are accomplishing, how much massive evil is done by those who use their extreme economic advantage to exploit and throw away many other citizens of the world.

When we allow ourselves to succumb to the too-easy rhetoric about the evil leaders of the Catholic church, we also allow ourselves to forget our own enmeshment in many kinds of evil occurring in the world around us. We let ourselves off the hook, morally speaking, through this too-easy rhetoric.

And I have long since concluded that being a moral person means being always on the hook, always troubled deeply by the awareness that every tax payment I make to my government involves me in systemic evil in which I do not want to be involved, or that every time I purchase a product from my grocery story, I'm making less than perfect moral choices because I'm buying products that support agribusinesses whose central concern is to exploit the natural world for profit, not to build healthy, happy human communities.

These are recognitions that are much in my mind right now because, just before we went to see "Spotlight," I finished Jane Smiley's magisterial new novel Golden Age, the conclusion to her Last Hundred Years trilogy. Golden Age brings her chronicle of a far-flung family with roots in Iowa farm culture to its conclusion, and a bleak conclusion it is (spoiler alert), as a young family member intently involved in the environmental movement returns to the family farm, which a wheeling and dealing family member directly involved in the bank crash of the first decade of the 21st century has stolen from his nephew, who had been farming the land.

And the land becomes a mere commodity, as climate change robs it of moisture and its rich topsoil dwindles from over a foot to a mere dry inch or two, which blows away as the descendant of the family that once fed itself and many others with this farmland lifts it in her hands . . . .

The "Spotlight" trailer is from Movieclips Trailer at YouTube.

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