I WENT TO see Spotlight when it was released in Boston on 6 November 2015.
I went because I wanted to show solidarity with clerical child sexual abuse survivors in the city.
They are not alone and the brave work they do must be recognised. I honour them for their inspiration.
Spotlight is largely about journalists and journalism but the topic is clerical child sexual abuse and how the powerful Boston Catholic hierarchy was determined to bury its negligence of children – over 80% of whom were boys – sexually abused by clerics.
The movie portrays how a special ops team, working within the Boston Globe called Spotlight, conducted a six-month investigation, from August 2001 to January 2002, into the affairs of the Boston Archdiocese.
It found more than 250 priests had been sexually abusing children.
It found that a cardinal and five bishops were involved in the connivance to hide and spread the horrendous violation of so many children. Their callous disregard for the innocence and dignity of so many children is painful to grasp as the story unfolds in the persistence of the four-person investigative team to uncover the truth.
Victims of clerical child sexual abuse are but shadows in the film, playing support parts in the scandal, exposing and testifying how the Boston hierarchy was also complicit in a monumental cover up. The similarities with Ireland are clear.
We get some appreciation of the blighted lives of victims, presented by those with drink or drug problems, who give their trust to the investigators in the hopes of bringing those responsible to justice.
The infamous Rev. John Geoghan who abused hundreds of boys is portrayed, much like Ireland’s Brendan Smyth. We find out that Cardinal Bernard Law knew that Geoghan had been sexually abusing children since he took over the Boston Archdiocese in 1984.
Law was complicit and disclosures show Geoghan was assisted by Law to molest and rape during a three-decade spree in six or more parishes in the Boston area. His youngest victim was a four-year-old boy.
Apology to victims
The film is also an apology for the delay over a decade earlier, in reporting information the Boston Globe received of clergy abuse by Phil Saviano.
The film ends with the sound of ringing phones in the special ops team office as the story broke in January 2002 with a flood of survivors wanting to tell their own stories. Indeed some 1,000 victims came forward in Boston as a result of the Spotlight exposure.
I found myself conflicted over this movie as a survivor advocate. I want everyone to see it as a glaring example of the corruption of power and how it took someone from the outside – the new Boston Globe executive editor Marty Baron – to challenge people who were tempted to manage the scandal differently in order to save their reputations and positions.
I don’t want to think that this is a movie which might be considered as making a profit on the misery of children. It tells a very necessary story and survivors are at the heart of it.
There is a sad reality though. What follows on from the congratulatory media exposé is not justice. Cardinal Bernard Law resigns as archbishop and leaves Boston for Rome, forced into exile in 2002. But he became Archpriest of Maria Maggiore, the second most prestigious Catholic church, and remained in that position until his retirement in 2011.
He was never prosecuted for his part in the sexual offences and abuse of so many children. In fact none of those responsible in the Boston hierarchy are held to account.
One of the victims in the movie, Patrick McSorley, who supported the special ops investigation, died by suicide two years after the big publication of the story. He was 29.
His background is painful, exceedingly painful.
At 6 years of age, he lost his father to suicide. At 12 years of age, he was taken for an icecream by a priest. This seemingly innocent act plunged a deeply-troubled boy into even greater strife at the hands of John Geoghan. His life was over before it had even begun in so many ways.
What vestiges of hope he may have thought drugs might have brought him proved illusory. He bravely sought justice against his abuser. Despite receiving $200,000 in civil compensation, he remained far too vulnerable.
He needed to get on a drugs rehabilitation programme but it was not to be. It ought to have been part of the settlement that he were placed on a detoxification programme.
As some people say giving a drug addict that much money is the same as a loaded gun.
I am particularly sensitive to such loss of life and Patrick’s story has brought me to tears more than once. I have known too many survivor suicides (an ultimate contradiction in terms).
Vigil in Boston
Whilst I was in Boston for the release of the film, I was invited to the home of an advocate supporter who has participated in a vigil outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston every Sunday since 2001.
He had bags of posters which he began to show me. Each poster had a slogan or photograph of a survivor as a child and as an adult with a year or age as a caption. When he replaced one of the posters before showing me, I asked why.
He explained that the person had taken their own life. I was very curious. I asked how many of his posters represented people who had died by suicide. He said there was at least one full bag.
I am reminded all too often of the high rates of self-harming and suicide amongst this survivor group. As important as it is to ensure these crimes never happen again, I work for and seek support for those whom the child protection policies already failed.
I am also concerned about how Spotlight is presented to the public. I would like to see ‘responsible screening’ of the movie including the publication of contact details for support services wherever the film is shown.
I know from a survivor who went to see the film that he had to leave after a short time as it was too triggering for him. Even though it does not contain sensational portrayals of abuse.
I have been in contact with survivors, survivor groups, support services and the PR company, managing the release in Ireland and the UK, and am given confidence that a proactive provision of support services will be in operation to handle any spike in demand for those who may be distressed in any way by aspects of the movie.
That said, I encourage as many as can to get to see this movie. Audiences to date have been from across all age groups. Colm O’Gorman remarked how one 20 year old told him how she knew so little about this subject. She is part of a new generation that is only beginning to grasp what was the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse in Boston, as much as elsewhere.
One thing that struck me whilst in Boston was the scale of reported child sexual abuse in the USA in comparison to Ireland. In a nominal population of 64 million Catholics in the USA, there have been nearly 16,500 complainants to date.
In a nominal population of 4 million Catholics in Ireland, there have been over 18,000 complainants to date. In proportionate terms, there would be 288,000 complainants in the USA.
I hope Spotlight opens up a new discussion in Ireland surrounding better and more robust protection policies. Any good prevention policy shows its ethical value in how it implements its provisional care towards those whom the policy fails.
In conversation with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last week, I noted how the media has been much quieter in reporting new initiatives and ongoing work on behalf of survivors and their families.
There is a lot of work to do for survivors and their families that hasn’t gone away just because the media focus has. Survivors suffer high rates of self-harm and even suicide but they ought not to. If we are serious about child protection then we ought to be serious about caring for survivors and their families.
If Spotlight encourages new debate and and ongoing discussion about the horrendous topic it sought to highlight in Boston – and deliver on new interdisciplinary services appropriate to the needs of survivors and their families – it will have achieved so much for survivors. I believe that was the intent of the investigation, as much as holding the Catholic hierarchy to account.
At some point justice has to be more about rescuing the victims than seeking punishment of those who abused power, as important as that is.
- Samaritans 116 123 or email email@example.com
- Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
- Aware 1890 303 302 (depression, anxiety)
- Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org - (suicide, self-harm)
- Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
- Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)
Mark Vincent Healy is a Survivor Campaigner seeking ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse.