Sunday morning. December 20, 2015.
Rachel McAdams as Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer realizes that a “retired” priest who’s admitted to molesting children lives unsupervised down the street from a school in Spotlight, the movie about the Globe’s investigation of the sex abuse scandal that should have brought about the collapse of the Catholic Church.
The last serious conversation I had with a priest was nearly fifteen years ago and it ended with him calling Mrs M and me bad parents and me telling him to go to hell.
That was the day I was done with the Catholic Church forever. And it broke my heart.
By that point in my life I wasn’t much of a Catholic. I was barely a believer. But I had been both whole-heartedly when I was young. I was proud of having been raised Catholic. I was grateful for my Catholic grade school education. I had nothing but fond memories of being an altar boy. The priests I served with were great guys. The nuns who taught me were smart, progressive, demanding, and kind. Over the years, my faith and the practice of it brought me mostly joy. I was a lazy CAPE Catholic by the time we became parents, but when Mrs M decided she wanted to raise the boys Catholic, I was glad. And when the time came I was happy and proud to send them off to Catholic school. Which is where the trouble began.
In first grade, Ken’s physical and emotional development problems started to show themselves, his several learning disabilities and blocks began to take their toll. And we had no idea what was happening to him. All we knew was that a very bright, imaginative, creative, happy, and kind little boy who wanted nothing so much as to please his parents and teachers and other kids suddenly couldn’t do anything right. With his friends and in class, it seemed to be always the case that whenever he should have turned left, he turned right, whenever he should have pushed the on button, he pushed off. He was constantly annoying the other kids, exasperating his teachers, and frustrating himself. He became anxious, fretful, lonely, and desperately unhappy. Predictably and understandably, he acted out by misbehaving. Not by being naughty and disobedient, exactly, at least not usually. By either refusing to participate, getting silly, or by melting down in tears.
Having no idea what was wrong and therefore no ideas about how to help him, Mrs M and I turned for guidance and advice to the people whose job, we thought, was to look out for the children in their professional care, his teachers, the principal, the pastor, and eventually the head of the diocesan schools.
That last person was the priest who called us bad parents and I told to go to hell.
We got no help or guidance. The pastor and the principal made it increasingly clear that Ken was our problem to solve and the way they thought we should solve it was by taking him off their hands. We should have done it right then. We might have if we weren’t afraid he’d get lost in the public schools---the public elementary school in our neighborhood was one of the most chaotic in the city, with a reputation for a lack of order and discipline, and one thing we knew was that Ken did best in quiet, structured, predictable situations---and if we weren’t such still-loyal Catholics. We thought it was important that he get a Catholic education because almost unconsciously we believed that was the only kind of real and complete education there was.
Mrs M and I weren’t helpless. We didn’t throw our hands up in despair. We sought out specialists and counselors on our own. But it was slow going and led to many dead ends. Eventually, our family doctor got Ken in to see the top child neuropsychologist in town and he made the diagnoses of Asperger’s, ADD, and dyscalculia that got Ken the IEP and the special education he needed and essentially saved his life. But by then he was in fourth grade and well and good out of Catholic school.
Two-thirds of his way through second grade, in the spring of 2001, our pastor told us Ken would not be welcomed back for third grade. Not only that, he would have to finish second grade at home or somewhere else.
That’s when we made one last appeal to the head of the diocesan schools. That’s when he called us bad parents. That’s when it finally dawned on me.
While Ken’s situation was coming to a head, the molestation scandal was breaking. The Boston Globe’s investigative series that’s at the center of the movie Spotlight hadn’t yet begun to run but there’d been enough stories in the news in the Globe and elsewhere and over a long enough period to realize, if you thought about it, something even more heinous was going on than that a few bad priests here and there were sexual predators.
There were too many for the church higher ups not to have known. There were too many who weren’t defrocked for it not to be a policy not to punish them as they deserved. There were too many put back into regular parish work after a year or so of “counseling” and “therapy” for it not to be the case that pastors and bishops cared more about the deviant priests than about their past and future victims. There were too many of these predator-priests and too much official looking the other way for all the other priests who weren’t idiots or predators themselves not to know what was going on and too few of them on record as having tried to put a stop to it even by complaining to church authorities, never mind going to the police, for it not to be the truth that just about every priest was to some degree complicit.
Even the rare bishops who policed their own dioceses and punished the predators and protected their flocks were guilty of not doing more to stop what they knew was going on in other dioceses.
The Church was rotten from top to bottom, and while it was desperately protecting and enabling child molesters, it was throwing our child to the wolves.
It was hand-feeding other people’s children to monsters.
That was it. I was done. It didn’t feel like a momentous decision at the time. For the past few years, I’d only been going through the motions of being a Catholic anyway, and I’d only been going through those motions for the sakes of Mrs M and Ken and his little brother. But something else had happened it took me a while to notice, something more wrenching when I finally realized it.
In going through the motions, I’d been keeping what residual faith I had alive. When I stopped going through the motions, that last bit of faith died.
Sadder to me than that, though, was that all my joyful memories of my life as a Catholic were tainted and made suspect. I couldn’t go back to church physically in the present and I couldn’t go back in the past by remembering without anger and without mourning. There were priests in the background and foreground of all my memories and I had to wonder. Those great guys I served with, was one of them…? The priest who married Mrs M and M, was he…? How about the priests who baptized Ken and Oliver and gave them their first communions? And what about all the other children, my fellow altar boys, my classmates, Ken and Oliver’s friends…?
And then all around them and through them was the Church itself and weren’t all of us foolish and to an extent complicit too by turning our lives over to an institution that demanded obedience and loyalty but didn’t care about us even enough to protect our children in return?
This is one of the reasons I was so impressed and moved by Spotlight. It’s a terrific film, beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy working in a minor key and with a muted palette to create a world that is somber and sad and fallen but lovely for the warmth of the good hearts beating at its center, and brilliantly acted by a cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Live Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci. But it’s the screenplay, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, I want to talk about here.
The dialog isn’t packed with snappy one-liners. There are few big and meaningful speeches. No angry confrontations. No pithy back and forths. It’s realistically conversational. Characters simply talk to each other. And they reveal themselves, their personalities, feelings, thoughts, experiences as people tend to do in conversations in real life, indirectly, off-handedly, often unintentionally, in asides, in lead ups to making a point, or in expressing a concern or working out an idea or asking a question, or wrapped up in their points, concerns, ideas, and questions so that nothing they say doesn’t tell us who and what they are. And who and what the four journalists working on the story---the movie’s four lead characters, editor Robby Robinson and his team of reporters, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll, played by Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and James---are all lifelong Catholics
All of them were raised Catholic and to varying degrees they’re believers, but none of them think of themselves as that connected to the Church anymore. Carroll attends his wife’s Protestant church. Pfeiffer regularly goes to mass but only as a favor to her grandmother who needs the ride and likes the company. Rezendes hasn’t been in years. And Robinson is more or less a social Catholic---he’s most Catholic when in the company of other Catholics and his ties to the Church are based on friendships, social connections, professional obligations, and nostalgia. And while of course as they investigate the story and uncover the breadth and depth of the scandal they are shocked, angered, and outraged, they are also...wounded.
To different degrees and in different ways they are shaken. Things they thought knew, things they thought they believed, their sense of who and what they are are called into question, become subject to doubt and rejection. Whatever pleasure, comfort, and joy they had gotten out of being Catholic is tainted, even lost, and it breaks their hearts.
Just as it did mine.
And Mrs M’s.
And millions of other Catholics’.
I can’t believe the scandal didn’t bring about the collapse of the Church.
Spotlight might not have been the best movie to see the weekend before Christmas.
I’m glad I did, though. I was forgetting how angry I was.
We’d never told our sons the story of my conversation with that priest. I finally did before we went to see the movie.
They wanted to know if I’d really said go to hell to a priest.
I told them no.
“I said, ‘Go to hell, Father.””
Once an altar boy...