By Mark A. Taylor
They were experienced reporters with the Boston Globe, accustomed to encountering shocking facts. And yet they had trouble believing the breadth of the priest pedophile problem in their city. As Spotlight (which Sunday won the Oscar for best picture) tells the story, they came to the truth slowly.
From a single incident they found connections to more, from one priest to 13. And by the time they broke the priest child-sex-abuse scandal, almost 90 clerics had been implicated. Since then many hundreds of victims have come forward in Boston alone. And abusing priests have been punished in scores of cities all over the world.
The saddest aspect of the film to me, however, was not the abused sufferers but the disillusioned observers. It’s true the whole circle of reporters digging out these facts admitted they had long before become “lapsed Catholics.” But we see in at least two of them a longing for the church to be the church they needed instead of the church they were discovering.
Nowhere did the film portray a leader or advocate of the church living with complete integrity and honor. And this surely is not the whole story. Although child sexual exploitation has been a systemic problem in the Catholic Church worldwide, certainly not every priest is guilty. We must admit, along with church apologists portrayed in the film, that the Catholic Church does much good in its communities. Of course, church-sponsored benevolence cannot justify church-tolerated abuse. But filmgoers were left with nothing but disappointment with a church that says it offers life and hope but ignored perversion among its leaders. Neither God nor the gospel won in this story.
And so the challenge remains for you and me and every Christian and every church to proclaim and demonstrate the beauty of lives changed by Christ. Will a disillusioned world see any better from us than they’ve seen in the much-publicized story of the Catholic Church’s failure?
We hope so.
And yet one person who saw the film with me told a story of a staff minister at a local church who was caught shoplifting in his community. Somehow the minister’s crime did not become public, but someone who witnessed it reported it to a member of the church. That person told the church’s elders what had happened.
The elders’ response was disappointing. At the time, their church was thriving. Attendance was up. The mood was good. The offerings were strong. So the elders decided not to confront the problem, for fear it would create an upset that would slow the church’s momentum.
I don’t know the rest of the story. Maybe looking the other way did not set this church up for a worse problem later. Maybe ignoring this incident did not contribute to a pattern that would eventually ruin this minister’s influence. Maybe the gospel’s impact in that community was not blunted by the poor judgment of these elders.
Maybe the person who reported the crime to that church can still be pointed to a life-changing relationship with Jesus.
But that seems doubtful. More certain is the reality that every Christian’s pursuit of purity creates the possibility of bringing seekers on that path along with him. And every Christian’s breach of integrity threatens his chance to be light in a world too often resigned to living in the darkness.
Lest we become too self-righteous about the flagrant failings of others portrayed in a film like Spotlight, we do well to make sure no exposure of our behavior or our ministry’s decisions can diminish our ability to influence for Christ.