“Everything in your life is public. There are no secrets. Everything you say, everything you do, everyplace (sic) you go, every thought you think is going to be known by all.”
Ted Haggard—one-time pastor of Colorado Springs’ massive New Life Church, one-time president of the National Association of Evangelicals—wrote that in his book Letters from Home. Those words proved sadly prophetic: In 2006, a male prostitute came forward, alleging that he and Haggard had had sex and used methamphetamines. Haggard—one of the most powerful men in the evangelical movement at the time—was removed from the pulpit and became a national punchline.
I covered Haggard’s fall in 2006 as a secular religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette. Those words, soaked in irony, were strangely comforting as I pushed through this difficult story. And I remembered those words again as I watched Spotlight, one of the year’s best movies.
There are no secrets.
Spotlight is a terrifically unsentimental story about how a team of Boston Globe journalists uncovered the pedophilic priest scandal in 2002. While the movie doesn’t yank at the heart like, say, Roomdoes, it feels utterly real. Utterly true. The detached zeal of the Globe’s reporters reminded me of the journalists I’ve worked with. The stories from abuse victims sounded very similar to what I heard during my own interviews when I covered the scandal—the reverence to which parish priests were held, and how those priests used that reverence for their own ends. “How do you say no to God, right?” one victim says. Spotlight felt spot on.
When the film begins its narrative in a pre-scandal, pre-9/11 world, the Diocese of Boston is arguably the most powerful institution in this predominantly Catholic city. Millions turn to the Catholic Church for guidance and solace. Its charities help countless people. It’s not a perfect institution: No one claims it is. But it’s inconceivable to most folks in Boston, including those who work at the Globe, that the Diocese would be hiding the darkest of secrets.
But as the Globe’s team of investigative reporters (known as Spotlight) begins digging, they discover that some of the diocese’s priests have been abusing young children. When parents come forward, the diocese sends them to other parishes or dioceses, where they’re free to molest again.
The Diocese tries to quash the investigation. One of its legal advisors appeals to Spotlight editor “Robby” Robinson’s sense of community and continuity. Robby (Michael Keaton) attended Catholic schools. He sees the good the charities do in the community. Don’t rock the boat, the lawyer suggests. Don’t destroy all the good the Church does because of a few bad apples.
But the Spotlight team pushes forward, and the story becomes ever more unseemly. It takes a toll on the reporters, too: Reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), a reporter who sometimes celebrated Mass with her grandmother, says she just can’t go to church anymore: It makes her too angry. Fellow reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) oozes fury. “They knew, and they let it happen!” he shouts. “To kids! It could’ve been you! It could’ve been me! It could’ve been any of us!”
And he had a right to be angry. Every Catholic did. It was a horrible story … and one that needed to be told.
When I was covering the Haggard scandal, many folks from his church didn’t understand my job and hated the fact that I was doing it. I was kicked out of the church one time. I got some pretty nasty e-mails. One official there once asked me, as a friend, not to print a follow-up. It’d destroy the church, he said. It’d hurt all the good work it had done.
I couldn’t do him that favor, of course. I wrote the story. But I understood the instinct to protect the church—protect an institution that means so much to so many people.
When we love something, we want to protect it. And so, when the something or someone we love does something bad, our instinct for self-preservation kicks in. We deny or rationalize or hide the sordid truth.
But if our faith means anything at all, we have to be honest about those who do terrible things in its name. It’s only through ruthless truth-telling that our earth-bound Church can better reflect its heavenly ideals. It’s only through exposing its flaws that we can fix them.
The Catholic Church is smaller than it was before the scandal, but I think a better and cleaner one now. A review via the Vatican’s radio outlet praised the movie, and lauding the reporters who inspired it.
“It was a group of professional journalists of the daily Boston Globe that made themselves examples of their most pure vocation,” said Luca Pellegrini, who often comments on pop culture for Vatican Radio, “that of finding the facts, verifying sources, and making themselves—for the good of the community and of a city—paladins of the need for justice.”
Ultimately, there are no secrets. Lots of verses make that very clear. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil,” we read in Ecclesiastes 12:24. And I think that goes not just for our own personal secrets, but the institutional ones, as well. As Christians, we’re not supposed to just sell a Facebook version of our faith. We’re to be honest.
Spotlight is not a movie that’ll strengthen anyone’s faith. The truths told here are too brutal for that. But it’s an important story to tell, and an important one for us to hear.