As I left the theater after seeing Spotlight, two members of the film’s publicity team asked for my thoughts on the film. I fumbled for words and said I was heartbroken. My wife mercifully pulled me away before I broke out in tears.
Spotlight left me helpless. The film, which tells the true tale of the Boston Globe investigative journalism team that uncovered the child molestation scandal in its local Catholic archdiocese in 2002, ends with a list of cities in which similar abuses have been discovered. I was overwhelmed by the scope of the atrocity, the knowledge that this sin-crime is not solely a Catholic problem, but a Christian problem, and the horror of realizing I, too, am complicit in this systemic injustice.
Spotlight focuses on the little things that accumulate over time to create systems that either function well or deplorably. We watch characters have endless conversations with lawyers who won’t say anything; knock on doors hoping to get impromptu interviews, only to have them slammed instead; wait in government offices for hours only to be told they’ll have to come back tomorrow; and comb through decades of directories showing which priests were assigned where and when and for what reason.
These small investigative gains eventually yield great results, but the process requires Herculean patience. (The film subtly suggests that kind of patience is rarely seen—and even more rarely funded—in today’s “hot take” world.)
And Spotlight also shows how it was small decisions, all made in parallel, that created the kind of system that could allow child abuse to proliferate. People look the other way, or look at isolated instances instead of the big problem, or just choose to give up because the problem is too big. Some get distracted by everyday concerns. Some even retreat to catechisms instead of facing contemporary questions that require contemporary answers.
Spotlight damns a system that allows children to be abused by spiritual authorities and convicts everyone, including the reporters who failed to bring the story to light a decade before, allowing another generation of children to be abused.
This weighs heavily upon me. I’ve sat and tried to make sense of the evil the film records. (I’ve seen it three times now, and I’ve been working on this piece for two months.) I’ve tried to discern my place in the vastness of it. It is so big. I am so small. How could this happen? What can be done?
Where is God in all of this?
How can I stay committed to the institutional church if this abuse is the kind of thing the institution cultivates? Why did “God-fearing” Christians allow this to continue for so long? I know that this system of abuse broke God’s heart, but why didn’t it break the hearts of more Christians? Do I really want to count myself among them if this is the kind of thing they allow to continue?
These questions aren’t particular to me and my wrestling with Spotlight. The most recent Pew Research study on religious life in America reveals that between 2007 and 2014, American Christians unwilling to identify with any established tradition or denomination grew 6.7 percent while all other affiliations fell by as much as 3.4 percent.
So in addition to my spiritual community and the Bible, I turned to an unlikely place to help me make sense of it all: the movies. Even more unlikely, the film that helped me was Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.