Spotlight: A Courageous Exposé
by Kalavai Venkat
The movie Spotlight won the Academy Award for best picture recently. It is an admirable movie for many reasons. It retells of a real-life story. It is, unfortunately, not a story that should’ve happened in the first place. It is not a story that should ever repeat itself. Spotlight is the account of how a small team of courageous journalists fought against the odds to expose the pervasive culture of pedophile rape by Catholic priests.
The first murmurs of widespread abuse of children in the Catholic parishes were heard in the media in the 80s. Spotlight revolves round the events in Boston. Children from poor and broken families and orphans were systematically targeted by the Catholic priests for rape. In Boston alone, at least 90 priests were pedophile rapists. Each of them had repeatedly raped numerous children. These children were emotionally traumatized. They often didn’t understand what was happening to them. These children believed that the priests were god’s representatives. These priests could do no wrong – so they believed. Therefore, when the priests they trusted raped them, they just couldn’t comprehend what was happening. After the initial shock, they comprehended the reality but were too frightened to report. On those occasions when they reported to their families, elders either disbelieved them or supported the priests. The church authorities, including Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, were fully aware of this pervasive culture of rape within the church. They tagged the offenders using code words in the internal records of the church. However, instead of coming to the defense of the child victims by reporting the rapist priests to law enforcement, they actually colluded with the rapists, who were just transferred to other parishes where they would rape a new set of defenseless children. These children had no option other than to submit to their priests while they were repeatedly sexually assaulted.
Lawyers, congregations, judiciary, and law enforcement colluded with the Catholic Church. Anyone who dared to initiate an investigation was physically assaulted or killed by the hitmen hired by the church. This culture of intimidation and the collusion of every social institution with the church, combined with weak laws ensured that the crime flourished undetected as a result of which children suffered for years.
It was a hopeless situation. However, a team headed by a determined Jewish editor and comprised of lapsed or nominal Catholic reporters had other ideas. They worked with and persuaded the survivors of systematic rape to come out and tell their stories. They were survivors because most children who were raped and traumatized committed suicide. These journalists then painstakingly researched and dug out the documents to establish the guilt of the Catholic church.
Even then, it would be virtually impossible to punish the guilty because the statute of time limits had expired – most child survivors of rape wouldn’t speak up until many years after the assault. However, the efforts brought to light a sordid story where Catholic priests repeatedly violated the trust of defenseless and vulnerable children. Cardinal Law, who was guilty of shielding the rapists, of merely transferring them to other parishes where they could rape a new set of children, and of causing the deaths of thousands of defenseless children, simply resigned. Spotlight brings the curtains down by revealing that Pope John Paul II rewarded Cardinal Law by appointing him as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 2004. Cardinal Law continued to be an influential high functionary of the Vatican and parleyed with government officials until his retirement. The movie concludes with a partial listing of locales, which cover the entire planet, including India, where Catholic clergy committed widespread pedophile rape.
In all, very few were punished for the systematic rapes and deaths of innocent and defenseless children. The few that were punished got away with light sentences. The Catholic church and the Vatican hardly paid anything in the form of financial compensation to the victims. Each successive pope, after shielding the rapists, continued to tour the world and posed for photo-op before a genuflecting media. These popes were received and felicitated by foreign governments. It was as if the child victims simply didn’t exist.
One could explain the behavior of the law enforcement and judiciary because they were predominantly Christian. They wanted to protect their church. The fear of media persons to report is understandable. Their Catholic readers would boycott the newspaper which reported this abuse and the newspaper would go out of business. The popes and cardinals came from the pool of priests. They are not known for high morals. They are charlatans of the worst order. It is not surprising that they protected the rapists. Even the apathetic behavior of the congregation is understandable due to two reasons. First, the victims were mostly poor children or children who hailed from broken families. This class was always looked down upon and seen as troublesome. Their plight wouldn’t have evoked sympathy. Second, a congregation is a closely-knit group. Such groups close ranks whenever they perceive attack on their institution by an outsider. A media report of rape would’ve been perceived as an attack on their community and institution by outsiders. All of this is understandable although certainly not justifiable.
How does one explain the strange behavior of family members of the child victims of rape though? These members not only initially disbelieved the children but actually colluded with the priests. One would expect them to fight a relentless legal battle to seek justice for their abused children. However, that was not the case. What explains their seemingly strange behavior?
Several factors explain their behavior.
First, these children hailed from very poor families. Their families often didn’t possess the wherewithal to fight expensive legal battles. The churches receive enormous government funding and tax reliefs and ruthlessly control the distribution of healthcare, food, and education to the poor. A complainant might denied these essentials. In many cases, Cardinal Law paid off these poor families to buy their silence. So, forced to choose between two bleak options – retaliation vs. token payoff – many families chose the latter.
Second, many of the child victims also hailed from broken families where parents had been divorced or children were raised by a foster parent. Such families lacked cohesiveness. A child was often seen as a source of trouble, even more so when he or she was in conflict with the church. Espousing the cause of the child would mean unmitigated trouble and hardship for years to come whereas deluding oneself that the priest, whom they had been conditioned to believe was god’s own representative and hence could do no wrong only required taking the path of least resistance. Many families took this path.
Third, congregations enforce a very high degree of conformance bias. An individual fits in by conforming to its dominant memes. A congregation holds its priests in high esteem. A poor parent of an abused child runs the risk of non-conformance when he or she reports the crime. Congregations also perceive a complaint against a priest as an attack on the institution of Catholic church itself and hence effectively as an act of treason. A non-conformist parent or victim would be seen as a traitor and a snitch and shunned. Nobody wants to be shunned.
Fourth, there is a widespread tendency to blame the victim of rape. It is a perverse tendency but a pervasive one. One may read this article of mine to understand the reasons which fuel this tendency. A child victim is often seen as a knave person who corrupted the life of god’s representative on earth. Such a child receives very little sympathy from the congregation or family, whose worldview is warped by religious indoctrination.
Fifth, as I explain in What Every Hindu Should Know About Christianity, Christianity is a system of in-group morality coupled with out-group hostility. It divides the world into in- and out-groups. Every deed which empowers the in-group and destroys the out-group is deemed moral. This is why The Bible is full of exhortations to the in-group of believers to exterminate the out-group of non-believers. Acting in ways which empower the in-group elevates the believer in the esteem of the congregation and in the eyes of god. In such a memeplex, anyone who complains against the clergy is immediately perceived as belonging to the out-group. The complaint is met with hostility and members of the in-group close ranks to defend the church. Families of the victims avoid complaining so as to avoid being perceived as members of the out-group.
Sixth, as I explain in my book, Christianity is a memetic virus. It warps the worldview of the believer and induces one to behave in ways which are against self-interest. A victim or her parent who complains against a rapist priest could be easily persuaded to believe that her complaint would displease god. It could even lead to eternal damnation. It is a very powerful weapon to control the gullible believer. Such parents delude themselves that the church authorities who connived with the rapist priests would deliver justice. They are easily pleased when the priest is merely transferred to a different parish. Ironically, such parents themselves become connivers in the crime.
Seventh, Christianity requires children to be submissive and urges adults to use disproportionate violence to discipline them. The Bible teaches that a child who talks back should be killed. It also mandates that one remains a virgin until marriage and that a woman who is suspected of losing her virginity before marriage should be stoned to death in a violent orgy. As a result of such barbaric teachings, Christian faithful develop an unnatural disposition toward sex. A child, although a victim of pedophile rape, is perceived as having tempted and led the priest astray. If such a child were to testify against the priest, she also commits the grave sin of disobedience to the clergy for which she deserves the death penalty. Hence, a child has a bleak chance of success if she were to complain against the priests.
These factors explain the collusion of the family members with the church and their apathy toward child victims.
It would be a mistake to think that the story of Spotlight is somehow a uniquely Catholic or American problem. Pedophile rape is widespread in all Christian denominations everywhere in the world. Pedophile priests and pastors target defenseless, vulnerable, and poor children. In countries like India, such children are rendered even more vulnerable because the media and law enforcement collude with the church and there is widespread poverty. Churches control access to education and jobs even more tightly in the Third World than in America. A Christian child needs a letter from the parish priest to get school or college admission. She can only get that letter by completely obeying the priest. Such a child is more vulnerable to the advances of pedophile priests. In addition, Christian churches have undertaken a massive evangelization drive in countries like India. A priest or pastor is monetarily rewarded for every convert brought in to the fold. This makes the clergy rich and conversely powerful. Add to this the endemic corruption in law enforcement and one can reasonably assert that very few child victims of pedophile predations in countries like India would speak up.
We should not tolerate the continued abuse of defenseless children. In countries like India government should create an oversight body which would control the churches, NGOs, and educational institutions. The clergy should not have any say in the admissions process to schools and colleges. Instead, the government should regulate such processes in a transparent manner. This would liberate vulnerable children from the clutches of the predatory clergy. We are living in a Digital world. There is no excuse for not leveraging Digital tools to safeguard children. There should be a mechanism where victims or their well-wishers could report on suspicious clergy without compromising the identity of the complainant. The onus of investigating such complaints using every monitoring tool should be on the law enforcement agencies. Not only should the guilty be punished swiftly but the church should be made to pay huge reparation to the victim. If there is a pattern of rape or evidence of attempt by the church authorities to shield the rapists, the government should nationalize the church.
We owe this to the future of every child.