Catholic Guilt

Three journalists, one of them a priest, discuss Spotlight—and the legacy of abuse it documents

Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films
Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films
Kerry Hayes / Open Road FilmsThe Boston Globe team in Spotlight.
Jonathan Kay

If ever there were a film designed to make me feel smug and righteous, it is Spotlight. To recap: The year is 2001, and the city of Boston is still publicly in denial about what we now know to be a legacy of child sex abuse by Catholic priests. Even the storied Boston Globe won’t investigate the issue in any substantial way, because there are fears of a powerful backlash from the local Catholic hierarchy (then led by Archbishop Bernard Francis Law), and by Catholic readers more generally. But lo, a new editor-in-chief arrives in town—a Jew—that swats away the old taboos and unleashes his most aggressive investigative journalists. In early January 2002, they produce a massive front-page exposé of the Church’s role in hushing up this predatory scourge. As a journalist, a Jew, a secularist, and a social liberal, I felt like Hollywood was giving voice to all of my private moral conceits.

Critics have hailed Spotlight for providing viewers with a largely unvarnished, unglamorous take on the sex-abuse scandal. But you don’t have to look too closely to see that there is some editorializing going on in the movie. At several points during the film, the investigating reporters find themselves on the phone with a remarkably lucid academic who has spent his life researching the issue of predatory sexuality among Catholic priests. During these phone calls (always on speaker phone), the academic systematically ticks through his theories about why many priests molested children. At the root of it is the Church’s celibacy requirement, which is honoured more in the breach. Priests learn to lie about their sexual habits, he claims, which creates a culture of secrecy and shame that envelops predator and victim alike. I ask: Is that a fair description?

Father Raymond J. de Souza, as a Catholic priest and a prominent conservative writer in Canada, you often took on the task of defending the Catholic Church from the most aggressive salvoes launched at it during the height of this crisis in the early 2000s. In fact, you and I sparred in the National Post opinion pages over the issue. When you see this movie, how do you respond? In your opinion, does it get the basic narrative right? Or do you still think that the liberal media is misrepresenting important elements of this scandal, along with its analysis of the underlying psychosexual causes?


Watching Spotlight was an unusual experience. It was like re-reading an old novel—all the characters and plots I was familiar with. Most viewers would be rightfully shocked and horrified by the predations described in the film, but while the horror remains for me, the shock no longer does. I know this story inside out, having covered it since 2002. Spotlight is rather restrained in treating the sordid facts of the sexual exploitation; I have read thousands of pages of graphic court filings and transcripts over the years. Indeed, one of the many books I read was the book published by the Spotlight team themselves after the stories appeared in the Boston Globe. Knowing the story as I do, I found that Spotlight largely rang true—with two major exceptions. More on that to come.

While my principal vocation is that of a Catholic priest, my secondary profession has been as a journalist. (The latter began before I was ordained.) So that also made my experience unusual. This film celebrates journalists exposing corruption to prevent ongoing harm, so in that regard I was cheering them on.

Spotlight is an unusual examination of the sexual abuse scandal in that neither the victims nor the abusers are in the foreground. We encounter them, but the focus is on the reporters and editors, the lawyers, and Church administrators. In that sense, Spotlight is less about sexual abuse itself than it is about how sexual abuse is dealt with and how we speak (or don’t speak) about it. It’s historiography more than history.

That’s why, I suppose, the “editorializing” that Jonathan picks up on is kept rather muted. Richard Sipe, the voice on the speakerphone, is a very well-known—but not authoritative—commentator on such matters. More an ideologue than a scholar, Sipe blames celibacy for sexual abuse, but in Sipe’s world, priestly celibacy is likely the cause of climate change. He has been campaigning against it since he left the priesthood “to shack up with a nun,” as Spotlight puts it. The film allows Sipe to briefly air his views, but doesn’t examine them. Partly that’s because in the intervening years since 2002 exhaustive studies have been done that have not shown any link between celibacy and sexual abuse, and partly it’s because the film is not really about why abusers do what they do, but what everyone else does when they come to know about it.

That brings me to the two exceptions to my take that Spotlight rings true. Despite knowing far more about the Boston scandals in particular and the issue of sexual abuse by priests in general than could fit into ten screenplays, Spotlight still managed to take me by surprise. One surprise was what it got wrong. The other was what it got right.

First, what it got wrong. Spotlight depicts the Boston Globe in 2001 as struggling to overcome a cozy arrangement of covering for the Church. That’s not true, or least twenty years out of date. By 2001 the Globe, not unlike its then-parent company, the New York Times, was far more an opponent than an ally of the Church. There are passing references in Spotlight to previous tensions between the Church in Boston and the Globe, but they greatly understate the case. The archdiocese of Boston would not have been viewed positively in the Globe newsroom, and certainly Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, would not have viewed it as a friend. Reading the avalanche of reportage about the crisis back in 2002, it was quite apparent that the Globe had at least two purposes driving its coverage—to expose the scandal, and to take down Law. The latter provided much of the energy for the former, so on balance I would judge that it served a good end. Yet the importance of the latter should not be overlooked.

Much is made of the fact that in the summer of 2001 the Globe got its first Jewish editor, a foreigner from New York by way of Florida. Perhaps an outsider to Boston may have been more willing to look at old stories afresh, but that it takes a Jew to order reluctant Catholics to turn against the Church is a stretch. One of the long-term dynamics of religion coverage on the east coast is that lapsed Catholics are far more aggressive toward the Church than non-Catholics. The New York Times has long had Catholic columnists who rarely write a good word about the Church; when it added a faithful Catholic to its otherwise reliable stable of lapsed-Catholic columnists, it was major news. All other things being equal, most bishops would prefer to be covered by a secular Jew than a lapsed Catholic, and all the members of the Spotlight team were lapsed Catholics. If anything, the arrival of Jewish editor would have made the coverage more fair.

So why did this incorrect angle get such amplification in the film? Because of the second surprise, which is that Spotlight argues that the reporters and editors of the Globe were themselves part of the problem. Spotlight overstates by far the degree to which the Globe was friendly to the Church to make the larger point that the web of complicity extended very far indeed.

“It takes a village to abuse a child,” the screenplay has the victims’ lawyer put it, and the film does editorialize that the Globe was part of the village that enabled the abuse to go on. Perhaps memory fails, but that strikes me as something a scriptwriter may have concluded in 2015, but it was not how the Globe saw itself in 2001. The film is right insofar as the particular evil of sexual abuse tends to corrupt all who come in contact with it. It is far more common that sexual abuse is not reported than reported. So was the Globe part of the enabling village? I suppose it had to be, along with the police and the lawyers and even, in some occasions, the victims’ families. Yet the degree of responsibility the film has the editors confess to is unlikely to reflect what they thought at the time.

The real editorializing of Spotlight is that the crime of sexual abuse is covered up by a far-reaching conspiracy of silence. That is largely right. The Globe’s reporting in 2002 prompted a sea change in how the Catholic Church deals with such allegations today. It was not the only factor, and not the most important factor, but it was critical.

Had Spotlight been made in 2003, or even 2005, it would have been a much different film. At that time, it was plausible to argue—as some did for honest reasons, and others did out of anti-Catholic animus—that this was a uniquely Catholic problem. A decade’s worth of stories about how sexual abuse is dealt with in the military, public schools, medical licensing agencies, and other religions have made it clear that the problem is far more widespread. The historiographical question is why such stories have not been told with the same intensity as the Catholic story. That question, lurking in the background, is what I suspect gives Spotlight its contrite, rather than triumphal, aspect.

The painful experience of Boston and related scandals has been largely purifying. As a journalist, I take pride in what Spotlight achieved, and as a priest I think the journalists did the Church a favour, though few on either side likely would have thought so in the heat of January 2002.


Firstly, Jonathan, I am with you on the inherent conceit of movies about the news media. As a profession we’ve spent a few too many years coked up on Woodward and Bernstein (more often on the movie All the President’s Men than their actual work). But I think there is a collective pride we can legitimately enjoy as heirs to a practice that has not only brought down a president but also contributed to the introduction of labour laws, the reversal of death sentences, the end of a war, and the exposure of all manner of malfeasance. The Boston Globe’s role in breaking the seal on sexual abuse by priests is a story worth telling.

The framing of the story as a newspaper investigation is more than just a convenient narrative device. A subtheme of Spotlight is the decline of print and old school journalism. The gathering storm is foreshadowed in a scene where two reporters arrive in an empty parking lot outside the newspaper and a billboard for AOL crowds a third of the frame. Spotlight is about more than telling the story of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal; it’s about how that kind of intensive investigative reporting is threatened in the Internet age.

I agree with you, Father Raymond, that the film’s treatment of priestly abuse is “restrained”. In fact we see none of it. Spotlight is about the mechanism and aftermath of the cover-up. The opening scene—which appears to occur in the 1970s or ’80s—tells us everything we need to know about the how the serial rape of children was obscured from the public consciousness. A mother sits in a holding room at a police station as her children colour with crayons. A rookie officer and his older supervisor watch from the duty desk as a prosecutor and an official with the archdiocese arrive to execute the dirty business of negotiating the victim’s silence. It’s just another night at the precinct. The perpetrator is even driven away in what looks like a limousine.

This is the source of the movie’s torque. It depicts the meticulous and often ingenious gumshoeing it took to uncover an outrage that was hiding in plain sight.

We know from history that for years parents had shared intelligence about priests who were not to be trusted with children. The presence of perverts amongst the clergy was so widely known it was winkingly referenced in Monty Python sketches in the 1970s.

The cover-up wasn’t a top-down operation; it was the result of a collective surrender to the idea that the church was more important than its sins and the suffering of its victims. This transcendent force is visually rendered in the movie in the crosses and crucifixes worn by the players and the presence of a spire in almost every outdoor shot.

If anything, the filmmakers show too much restraint. If ever there were a figure more worthy of a scenery-chewing Hollywood lynching it’s Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. His false piety and vile actions were rewarded with a Vatican sinecure where he remains to this day. It’s hard to think of a more damning demonstration of the church’s failure to acknowledge the full extent of its actions. In the movie Law lurks as an undefined background player. Another director might have cast a creepy actor or—as they did in The Godfather Part III—signalled his internal corruption by making him a smoker.

Father Raymond may be right that celibacy has not been upheld as the cause of priestly predation. However evidence suggests a historical over-representation of homosexuals in the priesthood. This is not to suggest a connection between homosexuality and pedophilia rather that it may not be a good idea to swear a person with unresolved sexual issues to abstinence and then place them in an authority position that often involves intense intimacy.

Father Raymond writes, “as a journalist, I take pride in what Spotlight achieved, and as a priest I think the journalists did the Church a favour.”  I do not have an archive for what you wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Spotlight series in 2002 but I will take you at your word. Sadly, church officialdom and many vocal Catholics were not as gracious. I remember frequently being labelled as an agenda-driven atheist and a “hater” for daring to suggest the church’s response was inadequate. I frankly feel it continues to be so. There is evidence to suggest the now-sainted Pope John Paul II was stubbornly deaf to the developing crisis and that Pope Benedict regarded it as a fire to be put out.

As for charges that the movie errs in terms of timelines and contemporary intentions, films based on real events always have to be about something greater than the bare facts. Spotlight is about sin and complicity and the redoubtable spadework it took to expose them. I can live with a few manipulations.

One of the movie’s most impactful moments comes in the final frames when panel after panel showing the names of cities where similar scandals were uncovered appears on the screen. Boston wasn’t isolated. It was a speck in a much larger portrait of mortal sin. That’s why the real-life Boston Globe investigation and the movie itself matter.


John, I agree that the opening scene involving the dirty plea bargain and the limo was a clever, haunting way to begin the film. I also loved the poignant, wordless touches the directors added to show the psychic scars of sex abuse—such as that fleeting image, late in the movie, of a now-adult victim of sex abuse with tracks up his arm. We see him pushing his own child in a swing—an otherwise happy family scene that is rendered tragic by the darkly vacant expression on his face, which communicates not only a lack of joy in the moment, but a permanent inability to ever experience joy. It symbolizes so much: Until relatively recently, we had no idea how lasting and deep the scars of childhood sex abuse were—which is one of the reasons few people talked about it.

But as Father Raymond has noted, the scrutiny and outrage directed at the Catholic Church isn’t always mirrored in other contexts. Various authors, for instance, have described the widespread sexual exploitation of young boys in Afghanistan and other Muslim societies where men and women do not interact freely. Yet to the extent this pathology is discussed at all, it is rarely discussed as a “Muslim problem” in the same way that sex abuse by priests is described as very much an explicitly Catholic issue.

In the same vein, I have written several newspaper columns about pedophilic sex abuse in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities. The response I get from many Jews is that I would do better to shut up about this, because I am encouraging anti-Semitism. And when New York prosecutors went after a notorious Jewish religious figure known to be a predator, a few municipal politicians even came to the man’s defence for political reasons.

As I write this, Kobe Bryant’s face appears on massive posters in shoe stores (he has some new sneaker for sale, apparently), despite a sexual-assault accusation and civil suit (the former was not prosecuted; the latter was settled out of court) by a teenage—though not underage—hotel worker. Silvio Berlusconi continued to serve as Italy’s prime minister after being accused of sex with a minor. A famous French actor continued to be fêted by his nation after it became known he had drugged-out sex with a minor. Jerry Lee Lewis opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s twenty-fifth anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. This is a guy who, at age twenty-two, married his thirteen-year-old cousin.

It’s fun for journalists to go after the Catholic Church: It’s run by old, (mostly) white men who wear robes and big hats. Their rules for clergy are, by secular lights, explicitly sexist. And best of all, it’s rigidly hierarchical—which means any scandal offers journalists and critics with the possibility of tracing the thing to the very top, and adds drama and urgency to the project of investigation. Finally, the celibacy requirement allows us to present the crimes of individuals as symptoms of an antiquated code of sexual behaviour.

Does all this mean that we have applied a double standard?


The short answer, Jon, is yes—there is a double standard. But as an argument for defenders of the church I think it’s a weak one. I mentioned that I used to debate issues surrounding abuse by priests and I remember one interlocutor in particular who used math games to argue that secular schoolteachers were worse. Even if it were true, that’s a feint-and-dodge means of drawing attention away from the Catholic Church. As our mothers used to say: “just because someone else does it . . .”

Certainly Hollywood can be accused of sanctimony. Going all the way back to the days of silent pictures, the industry has a history of looking the other way. Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn were regarded as waggish cads for their fondness for underage girls. Fans of Roman Polanski will bend themselves into pretzels trying to explain how his statutory rape of a teenager was no big deal. I’ve never bought the charges that Woody Allen molested one daughter and married another but in spite of my admiration for his work, even I have to concede the catalogue has enough instances of creepy behavior toward women to justify—at the minimum—the charge that he’s a dirty old man.

You can widen the circle of discreditable sexual behavior to other professions. There is ample evidence that John Lennon—the music world’s pied piper of peace and love—used and discarded women like Kleenex. Chris Brown beat the living daylights out of Rihanna. R. Kelly argues that we just don’t understand the love he has for younger girls. Sports figures collect their hookups from the locker room door like candy from a bowl.

Jon, you point out that there are many examples of sexual abuse in other faiths. For someone like me this raises issues about religion itself. It’s confounding that faith can provide the framework for sin and self-forgiveness. In some sects men get ritual divorces for the time they spend with prostitutes. In what rational world does that kind of superstitious piffle amount to something worthy of being called sacred?

I would dispute your contention that the routine rape of boys by men in Islamic countries has not been labeled a “Muslim problem.” Increasingly, the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are shouldering the bad behavior of any of their coreligionists. In the wake of the News Years Eve attacks in Cologne, people have taken to calling migrants “rape-ugees.”

So the Catholic Church can legitimately argue that it has been forced to wear sins that are arguably just as common in other communities. The church’s natural enemies conflate the sexual-abuse chapter into a generalized corruption of the full community. The church has not received credit for the measures it has taken to make predation by priests a criminal matter.

But the scandal does count as a major and still largely unresolved indictment against the church. While Popes Benedict and Francis have taken liturgical steps to address it, they haven’t arrived at the kind of purgation the issue demands.

Father RAYmond J. DE SOUZA

Did anti-Catholic animus drive much of the coverage of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal? Yes and no, and for the Church that is not the most important question.

Yes, there was anti-Catholic animus. Jonathan and John have both provided examples of how sexual crimes against minors in other environments apparently did not merit similar coverage, and adduce that to presumed anti-Catholicism, or at least a belief that the Catholic Church merits being taken down a peg or two. I would add to the examples given the issue of public schools, where predators are often protected both by the state education bureaucracy and powerful teachers’ unions. Every so often an American state contemplates lifting the statute of limitations so that victims can bring otherwise dated claims for civil damages against the Catholic Church. Whenever it is proposed that the same should apply to public schools, it goes nowhere. It is a gross double standard that illustrates that the welfare of children is often not the priority.

But it is not all anti-Catholicism which explains the double standard. There are other factors that made it easier for journalists to expose Catholic malfeasance. Investigative journalism is expensive and demanding, but it is less expensive and less demanding to go after the Catholic Church. It already keeps the information the reporter is looking for.

Last month the Archdiocese of Seattle disclosed the names of all those priests accused of sexual abuse dating back decades, including those long deceased. Records are kept and can be rather easily accessed, if the willingness is there—or if they cannot be unsealed by court order or leaked. The Spotlight team worked for several months, but using publicly available directories and court filings made in civil suits. If you wanted instead to know how many Protestant pastors had been accused of sexual abuse in Seattle or Boston in the last seventy years, it might be a research project that would consume dozens of years of labour, not the six months the Spotlight team gave to it. What newspaper—or personal injury lawyer—is going to undertake that?

Yet even the anti-Catholicism doesn’t greatly bother me, because it often purifies the mission of the Church, as it did in this case. Anti-Catholicism is simply part of the scene; it’s what eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. called the “deepest bias in the history of the American people.” English-speaking Canada shares some of that history. The Globe and Mail started out 150 years ago looking askance at Catholicism because it preferred Anglicanism; it now looks askance at Catholicism because it is has gone in for secular fundamentalism. If fifty years from now it should convert to sharia or Gaia worship, the anti-Catholicism would remain.

Regardless of motivation, the work of journalists helped the Catholic Church deal with a particularly harmful form of ecclesial corruption. It gave urgency to a process that was underway, but too slow and too haphazard. The most important reform in how the Catholic Church deals with sexual abuse was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in April 2001, requiring that all cases of sexual abuse by priests be reported to Rome for action by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. There have been further improvements since, but that was the key step, preventing bishops from deferring to a local culture of silence. That reform took place nine months before the Boston Globe stories appeared. The white-hot anger generated by the Globe’s reporting made those reforms much more effective, and quicker, than they otherwise would have been. The attention made Catholic environments safer more quickly for children. That’s to the good. Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, former Vatican chief prosecutor in clerical sex abuse cases and now head of a special tribunal set up by Pope Francis to decide such cases, agrees that media coverage helped the Church.

“All bishops and cardinals must see [the film Spotlight],” said Scicluna. “They must understand that it is reporting that will save the Church, not omerta.”

John inquires whether I had the same views in 2002 as I do now about the benefit of public exposure for the Church. The truth is that I did not write very much about this back in 2002; I was not writing very much about anything at the time, as I was then finishing up a graduate school thesis. But the point John makes is fair—the initial response of many Catholics was to get our back up, to be defensive first, and truth-seeking second. Over the past decade, especially following the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, the attitude expressed by Archbishop Scicluna—one of Joseph Ratzinger’s top aides before his election—has taken root. Indeed, in Canada and the United States today, news about a priest accused of sexual abuse—accused, not convicted—usually comes from the diocese itself. It is common that parishioners in an affected parish are notified so that other potential victims might come forward.

A final note about the decline of investigative journalism, which John notes is part of the subtext of the film. Another film released last fall, Truth, starring Robert Redford of All the President’s Men, dealt with the same theme. The villain of Truth, about how Dan Rather fouled up the story about President George W. Bush’s national-guard service, was corporate media, CBS and Viacom—not the Catholic Church—so it has not received Hollywood’s laudations in the manner of Spotlight.  But it makes the same point, namely that the strained economics of both print and broadcast news means that there is unlikely to be a Woodward and Bernstein or Spotlight in the future.

I have been discussing this subject for many years now and appreciate the honesty that Jonathan and John have brought to it. It is refreshing to have acknowledged at the outset that “secularists” and “social liberals” too can be prone to self-righteousness!

The telling of sexual abuse stories is changing. During the time of our exchange, a scathing cover story in Newsweek exposed the deep prosecutorial and judicial corruption at the heart of a landmark Philadelphia prosecution of a priest, not himself guilty of sexual abuse, but convicted and jailed for “child endangerment” because he allegedly failed to stop other priests who did. The case is the typical prosecutorial tyranny regularly served up by the American criminal justice system, so that is no surprise. But that Newsweek would devote a cover story to exposing as fraudulent a conviction much ballyhooed by victims and prosecutors alike is noteworthy.

Perhaps we are coming to more balance in where we focus our journalistic spotlight. As a priest with a modest public presence, I know that I am only one accusation away from having my life totally disrupted, perhaps permanently. False accusations have been made against priests far more senior than I—Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, for example. In some ways, I am surprised it hasn’t happened already. Yet if that dark day were to come, I am heartened that the type of conversation we have just had might mean that a balanced and sober assessment of evidence—free from both prejudicial condemnation and institutional cover-up—is now more possible than in the past.

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is a journalist, book author and editor, and public speaker.