Last week I was finally able to see ““, the recent movie depicting the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation into the priest pedophilia abuses. What makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the shared burden of culpability by those outside the organized Catholic Church. While hunting down the priestly offenders, including Cardinal Bernard Law, “Spotlight” also takes calculated aim at those official offices and individuals that turned a blind eye from the sexual abuse of children. In his NCR review, film critic praises the film for its ability to include such collaborators as “Lawyers, law enforcement, family members and friends, and pointedly and repeatedly, the fourth estate itself—the press and specifically the Globe – are all implicated.” Which is to say, the sin of silence through a misguided sense of protection of the institution is as damaging as the act itself.
In the Globe’s investigative work, a team of four reporters begins the difficult work of interviewing survivors of sexual abuse. What moved me deeply was the recurrent syllogism expressed by each in their retelling of the abuse at the hands of their parish priest. In the first statement of a syllogism, the major premise is the articulating of the moral principle. Step two, the minor premise, is the particular act to be judged. Step three is the logical conclusion inferred between the major and minor statements. With regard to the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the priesthood and views expressed by survivors, the syllogism looks like this:
Step 2: All priest (as males) reflect Jesus Christ in word and deed.
Step 3: When a priest abuses children it is as if Jesus Christ is also the abuser.
For those survivors interviewed by the Globe, their early religious teaching of the priest as Jesus made Jesus as God a participant in the abuse. Cries of anger over the abuse at the hands of priest who stood in the place of God turned to lament at the losing of ones faith and belief in a benevolent God.
I viewed “Spotlight” with my long-time friend Eleanor (not her real name) who left the Catholic Church years ago yet continues to self-identify as Catholic. As the two of us absorbed the final moments of the movie I heard her soft, quiet sobs. I thought perhaps the movie had brought to the surface suppressed memories of abuse, which it had, only not the kind I had imagined. I asked if she was okay to which she angrily responded, “I can’t talk about it.”
By the time we made our way to the car, she cried out “You know, there is more than one way for a priest to abuse a child.” Indeed. Eleanor was an unwilling participant in her mother’s 30-year affair with their parish priest. The movie resurrected particular painful memories where those close to my friend’s mother and priest remained silent, pretending not to notice the telling details of their affair and how they used her to camouflage the dirty details of their relationship. As parish secretary, Eleanor’s mother spent more time in the rectory than her own home. As a student at the same parish and school, my friend’s close association made her guilty by proximity. Nuns who suspected took out their angst on Eleanor in the form of public shaming or unwarranted discipline. The mother and priest would bring her along on vacations in order to legitimize their time together. Her father ignored all the signs, even the truth-telling by his own daughter in order to maintain the well-cultivated secrecy that inhabited their Catholic identity and community.
There are two moments in “Spotlight” that situate the effect the loss of religion can have on the spiritual psyche of an individual. In the first, Globe reporter Rezendes remarks that as a child he really enjoyed going to Mass and even though the official church has failed him, he always expected to someday return. Now, with the mounting evidence of abusive priest and hierarchical cover-ups, his resentment turned to anger has closed the door to ever returning to the church. It is this theme of returning to church as home that has deeply affected my friend over the years since the death of the priest and her mother. For my friend Eleanor and those depicted in “Spotlight,” the loss of their personal faith is the lingering reminder of their abuse. Over the years, Eleanor has dropped in then out of Mass, unable to tolerate the visual of a man dressed in drag as Christ’s representative.
The second moment takes place when the true life character of , a San Diego mental health counselor and former priest who has researched the sexual lives of priest since the 1960’s, speaks with Rezendes about his findings. As the conversation begins, Rezendes confirms Sipe as a onetime Catholic priest but who continues to self-identify as Catholic. How, asks Rezendes, does that work? Sipe responds that he is able to distinguish between the institutional Church and “the eternal mystery” in which he participates. In other words, his faith is not contingent on the Church.
This is where the emotional conversation between Eleanor and myself rested, in the “eternal mystery” of a renewed faith that situates the divine outside of doctrine and the mortally wounded notion of priests as God incarnate. Like many of us, Eleanor’s ability to decolonize herself from harmful doctrines and their representatives is a work in process. The freed soul can now ponder the wonders of her faith and the “eternal mystery.”
How would your syllogism capture the “eternal mystery” of your faith?
Cynthia Garrity-Bond is a feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past six years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthia is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.