Nonfiction — print. Little, Brown, 2008. Originally published 2002. 304 pgs. Library copy.
As a resident of Boston and someone who briefly worked in journalism, I felt compelled to see “Spotlight”, a feature film that follows the Boston Globe‘s reporting of the Catholic Church child-abuse scandal in 2001-2002. The film certainly makes a compelling case for supporting the local paper and, more specifically, the investigative journalists who take months to develop a story rather than the click-bait headlines that seem to be at the forefront of journalism these days thanks to its focus on the reporters and the lead-up to publication.
Of course, the film opened up several questions for me about the fallout post-publication and the pervasiveness of the problem beyond the two priests focused on in the film. I tried clicking around the Globe‘s website, but was stymied by “bad gateway” errors. Thankfully, I did stumble across a reference to this book, which was published by the reporters of the paper in 2002 (updated again in 2008) and complies the 600+ articles they wrote on the topic to provide a succinct overview of the cover-up and the subsequent scandal.
This is a hard book to read. There’s no other way for me to put it. It’s incredibly well-written and the complexities of the cover-up from the local parish level all the way to the archdiocese of Boston and Cardinal Bernard Law are easy to follow. I never once felt lost or confounded by the rapid pace of the reporters’ investigation. But the details of the abuses and the pervasiveness of this systematic abuse of children are difficult to stomach.
There’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the district attorney arrives to sweep the problem under the rug, to get the woman reporting what has been done to her children to drop her complaints in order to protect the Church. That scene is repeated throughout the book as the Church moves to protect their priests and the attorneys work to pocket the money from their clients’ settlements and non-disclosure agreements.
And then the interviews with the survivors in the books? I can see why so many of my friends raised in the Catholic Church in Boston up and left with their parents following the scandal breaking in 2002.
There’s also a chapter in the book that details the Church’s waning influence in Boston following the scandal. In the year and a half I have lived in this city, I have never felt like the Church had the kind of influence on the populace that both the film and the book claim it had. This could be because I really only associate with transplants to the city as I have met a few people living in Dorchester and Roxbury who asked me which parish I live in rather than what neighborhood or section of the city.
Yet, according to the book, the Church lost influence as its members left in droves and few of them have returned in the years between the scandal breaking and my moving here. There are estimated 1.8 million baptized Catholics in the archdiocese, and about 16 percent attend Mass on a regular basis.
I found it particularly interesting that some of the laity left not necessarily because of the scandal itself, but because Cardinal Law and his bishops within the archdioceses squashed any and all efforts by the laity to reform the Church from within. There are some interesting interviews with people who tried to arrange meetings within their parish only to have their efforts squashed, and the writers go on to detail how Law largely isolated himself from the laity following the scandal breaking. (Law would later be named Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome by Pope John Paul II, whose botched handling of the scandal is also detailed in the book, after stepping down from the archdiocese of Boston.)
The writers of this book do try to detail some of the efforts of the Church to reform itself, but there is an overlying tone of hopelessness given how pervasive child abuse within the Church has been across the United States, Ireland, Australia, and other nations around the world. This feeling of hopelessness is particularly prevalent in the chapter where the reporters speak to psychologists and doctors trying to determine what makes priests more or less likely than the general populace to abuse children.
I think its clear from this chapter that the hierarchy of the Church and the reference afforded to priests has more to do with their ability to offend rather than any kind of predisposition. (There’s a heavy suggestion that being a homosexual makes one more likely to abuse children, but this has been repeatedly and emphatically debunked in the past thirteen years.) After all, knowing that Law went unpunished and was moved to Rome where he continues to be a conservative voice within the Vatican and participated in the 2005 papal enclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI suggests the “old boys’ club” that placed the welfare of the Church above children is alive and well.
The Boston Globe has made the introduction and the first seven pages of chapter one available on their website. You can read them here as well as explore the archives of the 600+ articles written on the investigative journalism unit, which is named Spotlight, here.