Spotlight: Powerful, Poorly Aimed
Review of Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, Open Road Films, 2015.
By Bernie Najarian
December 14, 2015
Angels are all around us and even walking among us, say many American Christians, and the best movie about this idea, Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life, will soon be replayed on television sets all over the land.
If there are angels among those of us who patronize New York City cinemas, they surely wept while they watched a very different movie with me a few nights ago – Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight. Surely all of us there, winged or not, must have been asking: how could so many kids have been hurt by people who were supposed to be safeguarding them?
“The problem lies in the institution of priestly celibacy,” we hear from a voice on the telephone. It’s actor Richard Jenkins, playing the role of Richard Sipe, PhD . (This quote from the screenplay is from memory and is not word-for-word.) “Only 50% of priests are actually celibate…”
The character voice of this well known ex-priest, psychotherapist and sociologist, author of the book Sex, Priests and Power, goes on to explain that many priests who sexually assault children do it because it’s easy to do. They prefer boys to girls, in many cases, not because they are homosexual pedophiles, but because boys are more deeply ashamed and less likely to snitch on them than girls. They are, in my interpretation of Sipe’s comments, what international child protection organizations would call ‘situational abusers’ of children, rather than temperamentally dedicated pedophiles or hebephiles. (Compare comments made by Sipe to CNN in 2002 ).
Spotlight, based on the 2001-2002 story of Boston Globe reporters who exposed a local Catholic bureaucracy concealing 87 child-molesting priests, is faithful to its sources. It is so documentary in nature that it doesn’t even try to reconcile Sipe’s perspective with its own overall view – that the priests were ‘pedophile priests:’ classic out-of-control, child-lusting, lifetime deviants. The sophisticated view of flawed personalities warped into sexual crimes by celibacy, much like heterosexual prisoners who become rampant homosexual rapists in prison, is replaced by the popular notion of the simpering, weak-willed Chester who can’t contain his lust for the juvies. Perhaps both concepts yield their measure of truth as the narrative goes from case to case, but the movie’s dominant perspective allows the camera to linger ominously on children’s playgrounds near Catholic churches and treatment centers, so that we can see that bogeymen may emerge to attack any time. That isn’t sophisticated at all. It’s the Hollywood stalking-of-innocence scene, a feature of every horror movie. I was disappointed to see this cliché being pandered to in such an important movie. The children shown in these clips were, as is standard in scandalizing journalism, much younger than the great majority involved in the real-life story.
Some people in the minor-attracted (MA) community, pedophiles and hebephiles online, like to distinguish conceptually between consenting and unconsenting intergenerational sex. In Spotlight, as well as in its underlying reality so far as we can discern, there was no sign of the former, except where psychological arm-twisting produced a caricature of queasy permission. In many cases, there was simply a trip for ice-cream or an excursion to the priest’s apartment, followed by groping or other unilateral affronts. Anyone familiar with the many normally socialized members of the MA community can see that people committing such acts are outliers. They behave like sociopaths who care nothing about others’ feelings, or like obsessives who completely lack control over what they correctly perceive to be their own moments of doing harm. Any of them who truly possesses the attribute of pedophilia must also possess psychiatric conditions related to impulse control or empathy. The simplistic interpretation of this strange concentration of abuse automatons in the Catholic church is that such people are drawn to the priesthood, perhaps as an escape from marriage, or perhaps as a perceived place where intergenerational sexual acts are de-facto tolerated. A more complex interpretation would be that priestly celibacy is, to some extent, a factory producing hundreds of artificial ‘pedophiles,’ most of them actually involved with adolescents, out of people who could have been legally gay or straight if they’d been allowed to take up sexual relationships . Exposure of these situational offenders in sex scandals then distorts the portrayal of real MAs, most of whom are people who possess the self-control and vigilant conscience that the prisoners of official, hypocritical celibacy may lose.
Of course, it's always possible, in this complex world, that people who are attributed only callous or malevolent motivations actually do possess some good will towards other beings. No doubt the tenor of the times in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when most of the Catholic abuse events occurred, allowed some priests to give themselves clandestine permissions to do things that were widely advocated by published sexual libertarians – liberating the repressed sexualities of children, making them comfortable with the intimate possibilities of their bodies, and so on. Boston, after all, was the home base of NAMBLA, which initially formed at a conference that was coincidentally attended by one of the accused Boston abusers, ‘hippie priest’ Paul Shanley . In Spotlight, gay character Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton) tells reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) that he was talked into liberating his 12-year-old body by a cool, long-haired priest 30 years his senior, and felt unable to refuse because of the shock of having his gay nature favorably recognized. The movie account deviates from Crowley’s actual story, where he was 15 at the time of the alleged abuse  and claimed that he repressed memories of the assaults until regaining them during highly suspect ‘recovered memory’ psychoanalysis  . In any case, conceding a kernel of potential truth to the story or to others like it, perhaps some of the abusing priests had notions that they were doing the equivalent of quietly giving parishioners encouragement to get a divorce, to use birth control, to get an abortion, or to undertake other Catholically banned necessities and expediencies. If so, they blundered badly with the psychologies of those they were liberating, and their intentions were of little practical value.
My take on Spotlight is that ultimately, despite sincere effort, it doesn’t do justice to its subject. The filmmakers completely overlook the reality that the abusing priests had millions more victims than conventional presentations have accounted for. Everyone who is sexually attracted to minors, but who abstains from illegal and unwise acts, is the victim of these restless, compulsive vagabonds of the Catholic molestation circuit. Director/writer Thomas McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer unthinkingly reinforce the social blinkering process that bypasses this reality. Their discourse about ‘pedophile priests’ implicitly places all MAs among the ring-necked vultures who gathered around the altar of abuse.
In reality many of us, while by no means perfect, or without error, or categorically ‘virtuous,’ stand much further away from that altar, legitimately closer to the angels in the background. We have not committed such acts, nor will we. Whoever fails to recognize this doesn’t know the first thing about the topic of minor-attraction – and this movie will only lead them further astray.