Dan Allender Responds to the New Film Spotlight

Spotlight movie

Recently, The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology was invited to participate in a special pre-screening of the new film Spotlight, which was released this month and documents the true story of the journalists who uncovered the widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Boston. Here, Dr. Dan Allender shares his reaction—and strong recommendation. And in case you missed it, here’s Kate Davis’s response to Room, another film that addresses the reality and repercussions of trauma and abuse, which The Seattle School community was also invited to pre-screen. (Heads up: in case you’re not familiar with the true story behind Spotlight, this essay contains spoilers.)

I need for you to see this movie. It may be one of the best movies yet on the systemic, cultural, and religious issues related to the cover-up of sexual abuse. It is certainly one of the best movies of this year.

As a cinematic piece it is intense, well developed, and compelling. The movie brilliantly tells the dark and complicated story about the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. The story also reveals how The Boston Globe, the paper that revealed the deceit, failed to address the story for decades as it lingered in their files. The cover-up was due to deceit, fear, and simply the inability to imagine the extent of the abuse or the extent to which the Roman Catholic Church papered over the crimes. Even though the viewer knows the story eventually gets published, there is enough tension through the process to wonder how it will actually occur.

Here are three reasons that Spotlight is worth your effort to see.

1) It portrays how abusers select their victims. The interviews with the victims are chilling. The pain, anger, and fear are palpable. The relief and rage involved in their story finally being believed is exhilarating. Over the last three decades I have been privileged to be part of hearing thousands of stories of those violated by abuse for the sake of their healing. But there is something different in telling the story for the sake of justice—simply to expose the levels of deceit involved in keeping their stories secret. To tell for one’s own healing is holy; to expose the lies of evil is beyond satisfying. It is an honor to celebrate the men and women who chose to expose the harm and paid a great cost to do so.

To tell for one’s own healing is holy; to expose the lies of evil is beyond satisfying.”

2) It exposes the lie that abuse is perpetrated by a few bad apples but is fundamentally rare. The estimate, quoted by one expert in the film, is that abuse is perpetrated by at least 6 percent of the Roman Catholic clergy. Over the years as I have engaged with mission groups, schools, presbyteries, and churches, I have endlessly heard administrators say: “We know abuse occurs, but it is infrequent and perpetrated by a few bad apples.” The phrase ‘a few bad apples’ is used to suggest that there is no need for a system-wide analysis of abuse. If it is rare and perpetrated only by a few, then we can continue our institutional lives with little reflection or change. One of the most powerful lines in the movie, delivered by the eccentric attorney who has taken the majority of the victims’ cases, says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse him.”

It is a chilling reality to acknowledge and address—abuse occurs because systems and institutions would rather turn a blind eye and remain ignorant. The cost is too great if individuals within the system are given power to address what they see.

The abuse of children is seen as collateral damage in a war: sad but inevitable. The most egregious perpetrators are merely moved from one diocese to another. Excuses are made. Small recompense for silence is offered. And the powerful exercise authority to keep the system in operation for the good of the whole at the cost of a few. It is not a great deal different from sacrificing a few select children to Moloch to keep the religious spirit satisfied.

It is one thing to read the words, yet an entirely different experience to see how systems deploy their agents to keep the lid on the lies. One can know with utter sincerity that systems are self-protecting, but the glint of the cover-up needs to be exposed for what it is: as evil as the abuse itself. Spotlight pulls back the covers of abuse, and the institutional structures that obscure abuse will never be able to do so with the same finesse again.

3) The heroes in this war are broken and tarnished. There is no one righteous or innocent. The film’s portrayal of the newsroom and their culture is reported to be precise and accurate. The energy to “get the scoop” is as much about advancing one’s career as it is to discover the truth. Initially there appears to be as much reluctance to disrupt the Roman Catholic Church in Boston as there would be to root against the Red Sox. The Globe reporters are thrown into the investigation only because an outsider, the new publisher (who happens to be Jewish), has no loyalty to the Church, Boston, or any person on staff.

The defense attorney for the victims is rude and an outsider. He tells one of the investigative reporters that he is too busy to be married and can do what he does because he is an outsider, an Armenian whose ethnic identity aligns him with a long history of suffering injustice and cruelty.

The head of the investigative team is told by a public relations expert that to soil the reputation of the Church is to lose one’s place in the community. The threat was unequivocal. Addressing harm in a system can only be done by someone willing to become an exile or by an outsider who is given power, for whatever reason, within the system.

It is the simplest of realities: If you want to address significant social harm, then you have to pay the price—usually some form of ostracism and self-doubt. Further, you have to pay through slow, detail-oriented gumshoe work, slogging through the muck of the obscuration held by those blinded by the status quo.

If you want to address significant social harm, then you have to pay the price.”

The reporters beat the system because they are willing to outwork those who hide the truth. Those who hide the truth are motivated ultimately by fear. Fear never provides the impetus to dream or risk; instead it shrinks the heart and narrows one’s vision. Hope demands dreams be realized through small, daily sacrifice.

The gift of this movie is that the actors, director, and crew get it right about newsrooms, victims of abuse, and the prophets, the outsiders who prompt us to live the truth rather than die through a lie.

Spotlight is now playing in select theaters. Find a showtime near you here.