I Knew About the Priest Sex Abuse Scandal, and I Became Catholic Anyway
I found this diagram on Pinterest a few weeks ago. A small sense of satisfaction welled up inside as I pinned it to my For the Love of God board. The unbroken continuity of the Catholic faith over the past 2,000-ish years has been one of my favorite discoveries! (Of course, I only "discovered" it like Christopher Columbus "discovered" America. The natives were already aware.)
The image popped in my mind again recently, as I sat in a dark theatre watching the screen light up with a story based on true events. I wasn't even aware the movie Spotlight existed, until a good friend of mine (a more recent convert who will receive the Sacraments in a few days) heard an interview on NPR, and became concerned that the film might be damaging. I wasn't as worried, though. The film is about journalists uncovering the notorious Boston Priest Sex Abuse Scandal. I am a Catholic convert with professional experience in both filmmaking and journalism. I felt very much at home.
There's a reason why you never see a movie preview that says it is a true story. It’s always based on a true story. That’s because you can’t really fit the whole of Truth into 2-ish hours of lens-captured images on a screen. Truth is way too complex. In reality, there is only one story, and we are all a part of it. And while I could never tell you the whole story either, I can attempt to shed some light on more of its angles. After all, I knew about the scandal, and I became Catholic anyway. Based on some of the themes I noticed in the movie, bear with me as I attempt to explain how that's possible.
(And by the way, this is not my conversion story. I've already touched on that, and if you're interested, there's a link at the bottom.)
An Outsider Like Me
Earlier in my conversion, I was so excited to be Catholic that I was trying to be so as if I had never been anything else. I think it was an important part of my growth, like a young grasshopper, but it wasn't meant to last. Now, I still love being Catholic, but my spiritual director, Sister Pat, recently encouraged me to just be myself, and bring everything that was good about my non-denominational Christian experience home to the Catholic Church, where it belongs. So here I am--my undignified, passionate, inquisitive, often making-jokes-at-inappropriate-times self, just being at home in my giant, beautiful, ancient Church.
Sister Pat was right. The Church needs outsiders. We tend to shake things up. There’s a part in Spotlight when Stanley Tucci’s character comments that it takes outsiders to bring about necessary change. And while the core beliefs of the Catholic Church never change, there are some aspects of the main culture that can, and must.
What is the Church?
At a particular crossroads of faith when I was wondering which way I would go--Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.--corrupt behavior in the Catholic hierarchy became a pretty significant barrier for me. Like most people, I was familiar with Catholic scandals long before I was ever familiar with what Catholics actually believe. How could I trust the Institution when they have such a record of being so super shady? Luckily, I knew at least one trustworthy priest friend who could turn the light on with these wise words: “If you want to study the history of the Catholic Church, don’t study the politics. Study the lives of the Saints.”
Personally, I started with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, affectionately referred to as The Little Flower. I read her reluctant autobiography, and saw in her such a genuine, beautiful, passionate relationship with Jesus that I didn’t know Catholics could have. She became my first Saint friend, as well as my Confirmation Saint. Eventually, I learned about more awesome, courageous Catholic Christians throughout history, like St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Faustina, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Gianna, and even Father Walter Cisek (who is not canonized at this point, but probably will be eventually). The list goes on and on. And even now, as I learn about more and more devoted Christians throughout history whose lives were so open to the Holy Spirit, and united to Christ in His Church, that He could move through them to change the world, I am inspired.
Sometimes popes, bishops and priests are among the Saints. A lot of them are! But unfortunately, sometimes there are those who are more efficient at proving to the world that evil exists, rather than good. We can absolutely look at history and see many instances of darkness creeping into the ranks of the Church leadership. But if we do that, then we cannot neglect the fact that there are always the Saints fighting back that darkness and restoring the light. The Truth. Not by leaving the Church, but by being the Church. This is the Body of Christ alive throughout history, the unbroken chain of faith and communion that began the first time Jesus walked the Earth, and will continue until the next, and into all eternity. This is the Church I signed-up to be a part of.
Who is like God?
This is not to say that the clergy doesn't have an essential role in the life of the Church. They absolutely do! I couldn’t help but notice, though, a certain pattern in the movie, something several of the victims would say about how they came to be violated. They would say that priests are like God Himself.
One asked, “How do you say ‘no’ to God?”
Another explains, “It’s like God himself coming over to your house.”
...Oh that sly, sneaky Devil. Always with the twisting and twisting of truth, just enough that it seems right. Just enough to be totally off.
I don't remember even once hearing the name of Jesus used in the film, and whether that was intentional or not on behalf of the filmmakers, that is profound. You see, “god” is a word that can often be obscure and misleading, sometimes referring to anyone or anything that can be worshipped, even ambiguous higher powers. But Jesus… now that is specific. Yes, priests are called to be like God. But not in the sense that they are called to be worshiped and adored. Specifically, they are called to be like Jesus in the example He gave them.
Remember when Jesus washed His disciples' feet? Priests are called to do that. And not just in some potentially awkward symbolic ceremony once a year during Lent. Priests are called to serve their fellow humans.
Remember when Jesus laid down His entire life for the sake of humanity? In a sense, we are all called to be like Jesus, and to be priests in this sense. But ordained Catholic priests are called to serve the Church in a very specific way. They offer sacrifices on behalf of God's people as a continuation of the Jewish priesthood of the Old Testament. (They do not offer livestock, though. That explanation is for another discussion). They act on behalf of Jesus during the Sacraments, giving flesh and voice to our otherwise intangible Savior. But as far as everyday life is concerned, while priests have the potential for profound holiness, they also have the potential and tendency to be about as human and messed up as the rest of us. As the Little Flower wrote in Story of a Soul:
I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His Gospel calls, the "salt of the earth," show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn't Jesus say too: "If the salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted?"
Our priests are men who have said yes to a life of selflessness, like Jesus. And even the holiest men among them are not worthy to do what they do. They should have our respect and support. But to place them on a pedestal where we think they are personally like God in character and status is not Catholic Christianity, it is mistaken idolatry. Priests do not deserve our worship; they need our prayers.
The (Spot)Light of the World
And now, I'm going to very much take Sister Pat's advice, and be myself in the Church by raising the following question: Who would you say was more Catholic in the movie (and ultimately, in real life)? The scandalous clergy? Or the Spotlight team?
I couldn’t help but notice that all four Spotlight journalists were raised Catholic—Baptized, most likely received First Communion as children, Confirmation as adolescents, the whole shebang. However lapsed they may have been in their beliefs and practices (and let's be honest, the spiritual climate they left behind was not exactly healthy and functional) the Holy Spirit was using them to uncover the truth. I even chuckled a little when Michael Keaton's character said that Cardinal Law "called down the power of God on The Boston Globe." Interesting. Maybe the power to reveal Cardinal Law's own corruption was not exactly what he meant, but it is what God gave them. All Truth does belong to God, after all, and journalism, when in is rightful form, can be a very righteous calling. St. Pope John Paul II said himself:
“Journalism, with its immense and direct influence on public opinion, cannot be guided by economic forces, profit and partisan interests alone. Instead, it must be regarded in a certain sense as a "sacred" task, to be carried out with the awareness that the powerful means of communication are entrusted to you for the common good and, in particular, for the good of society's weakest groups: from children to the poor, from the sick to those who are marginalized or discriminated against.”
In this world, power and authority have a tendency to corrupt, yes? So it is the role of the true journalist to hold the powerful authorities accountable.
Where was God in this situation? In addition to being present in the Sacraments, I would argue that He was working at The Boston Globe. And that the name Spotlight may have been prophetic for this team of lapsed Catholics.
But maybe that's just me.
I’ve known Heather since high school, when she first started dating my cousin, Fred. They got married the same year Josh and I did, and now in her 30’s, Heather is fighting the very same type of cancer that recently took her dad’s life.
Her struggle against cancer started out very private, but since then she has opened up quite a bit. She writes blogs when she feels up to it. She posted pictures of her beautiful, bald head, and now updates as her hairs grow back, symbolizing her determination to keep. on. She laments about miserable hospital stays, and tedious medical procedures. She shares about her reality with us, what it feels like to be stared at in public when she doesn't feel like wearing a sweaty, itchy wig. And she also shares with us her awesome sense of humor, and strength of spirit. She jokes about confusing small children by taking her hair off, and being a "man with boobs". She uses hashtags like #FightLikeAGirl, #BaldChicksAreStrong and #PickedTheWrongGirl. By making herself so vulnerably and courageously human, she has made us all better for seeing what she’s really made of. Whether consciously or not, she makes the rest of us wonder what we’re really made of. And what's really important. If we let her.
Heather is not her cancer; Heather is the one fighting.
And the Church is not the corruption of human power; the Church is the one fighting. Always has been; always will be.
Where Were You?
In a climactic moment of the film, when Michael Keaton’s character confronts his old friend about secretly representing the pedophile priests, the friend asks him, “Where were you? What took you so long?”
As I mentioned before, there is really only one story, and we are all a part of it. So where are you?
I realized during the movie that the diagram I found on Pinterest is not really an accurate representation, because there are so many splits and splinters from the original vine that no one could ever successfully draw a diagram of the reality of Christianity right now. We've got so much fringe, my bangs are jealous. I began to wonder if each of those core offshoots happened at a time when the leadership of the Catholic Church was misbehaving so badly that people felt they absolutely had to find a way to continue following Jesus without having to deal with the hierarchy of the leadership. Maybe not every offshoot, but at least some, right?
It may seem intuitive that when the crap hits the fan, as they say, the best thing to do is to leave the room, and turn on a new fan in a new room. Sure, that sounds refreshing. But then, who is going to clean up the mess? Are we just going to leave the original room all crappy? Do we really think there is no crap in the new room, and that it won't eventually hit the fan too? Then what? This just in: The whole world is full of crap. It needs the Light of Truth that is the real Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It needs saints, the pillars of wax willing to be consumed in order to bear that light. We cannot abandon The Church; we have to help her. We have to #FightLikeAGirl, and be who we are meant to be in this story, all genuine and courageous. We have to be The Church.
And we don't have to put our best wig on and smile as if everything is okay, either. It will be someday, but it's not right now. Everyone knows that everything is not okay right now. So let's be real about that. We can be vulnerable, and let people see the evidence of our battle, because it's true. Like Heather's hair journey on Facebook, and Jesus' scars to Thomas. When we are open about the truth in our human frailty, perhaps it'll give us more opportunity to be open about the truth in our Savior's divinity. Who knows? People may actually want to hear about it then. People love a good, honest story. Maybe the New Evangelization doesn't start with attractive programming. Maybe it simply starts with transparency, and humility. By melting like wax in the light of Christ. I think that's where trust has to start, anyway.
So many Catholics have scattered as a result of the present crisis, but not all. The Church is still very much alive, and there are new people coming in all the time. There is even the remnant of those who were raised Catholic, even Boston Catholics, and are still making waves for Christ in humanity. My hope is to shed light on their parts of the story, and to examine what the Church leaders actually are doing to address this issue, even though you haven't seen it portrayed in the mainstream media as much. And I'm also hoping to address some questions that may come up as a result of me writing this. After all, this isn't just my story, or even the Church's story. This is Jesus' story, and we are all in it somewhere. Or should be, at least.
Catholics on 'Spotlight', Part 2: Perspective from a Boston Catholic who still loves and serves the Church
Catholics on 'Spotlight, Part 3: Scandals, sexuality and the monster at the table (off the record insights from a Catholic priest)
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Perspective from a Boston Catholic who still loves and serves the Church
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The Church, the Pedophiles, and the Filipino Party Tree