Taking on the Catholic Church must have been pretty daunting for the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe newspaper. The film of the same name, Spotlight, was one of the most challenging and brilliant films I have seen in a very long time. Gripping, enthralling and upsetting to think about the thousands of lives affected by the breaking of that most sacred of trusts between priests and vulnerable children.
Starring a plethora of fabulous character actors – Michael Keaton, Leiv Schrieber, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and written and directed by Tom McCarthy, the film systematically takes us through the painstaking investigative process that a group of reporters undertook to shed light on the abuse of children by priests and members of the Catholic clergy throughout the Boston diocese between the 1960s and the early 2000s.
The number of priests involved was astonishing, and terrifying. With one of the psychiatrists estimating that around six per cent of priests are abusers, I hit up the interwebs for some global facts on the Catholic Church. According to the National Catholic Reporter (an independent news source) in 2012, there were approximately 393,000 priests on the planet. Six per cent of that is 23,580. That’s slightly more than the entire population of Taupo. Out there, apparently abusing children.
Of course, let me be clear. This is not a beat-up on the Catholic Church as a whole. But the sad fact is that there have been decades and decades of cover-ups within the clergy, and when you look at the alarming rate of people coming forward with abuse claims, it does make you wonder how it became so common in the first place.
When the higher echelons of the clergy claimed that they were ‘never made aware’ of abuse allegations (case in point: Cardinal George Pell in Australia and his denials recently made to the Vatican investigation of historic abuse claims in Australia) and moved priests from one parish to another rather than reporting them to the secular authorities responsible for prosecuting criminal activity, it does create a sense of mistrust against the Church, an understandable culture of suspicion that dogs even those who are doing good.
And don’t believe for one second that this is just an issue for Catholics. There are reported cases of child abuse across all forms of religions – Jewish, Morman, Baptist, Amish, Hindu, Muslim – pretty much every religious faith has reports of abuse from within its hierarchy.
Janet Heimlich, author of ‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Maltreatment’, said in a recent Huffington Post interview that children are more vulnerable to abuse and neglect if they live in religious authoritarian cultures. Three main factors identifying those authoritarian cultures include: (1) a strict, social hierarchy, (2) the culture is fearful, and (3) the culture is separatist.
Pretty much every organised religion then?
Primarily, abuse can occur when there are certain factors at play too. As Spotlight highlighted, the children that were victimised had eerily similar backstories that the perpetrator used to their advantage. The kids were often from lower socio-economic backgrounds, from single-parent families where the primary caregiver worked fulltime, and where the family had strong ties to the Church, therefore making it difficult to believe an allegation against a priest. More than once, the victims described initially being singled out for attention by the offending clergyman as akin to being ‘chosen by God’. How does a child stand a chance in that kind of situation?
The number of cases currently being investigated by the Church around the globe is now in the thousands, and rising, and there is a feeling of frustration that Pope Francis may not be taking enough action to respond to these allegations. Going back to the earlier estimates of the percentage of potential abusive priests numbering over 23,000, the process is a painfully long and lengthy one, especially for the survivors that have to wait for their day in court.
Addressing systematic abuse like this within any form of society, religious or otherwise, starts with taking our heads out of the sand, and being vigilant about the most vulnerable members of society – our children. If something doesn’t seem right, we need to speak up.