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July 2, 2022

The abuses of Good

“Spotlight” is primarily a film about the press. About the combination between daily commonplaceness and revelations capable of changing the course of history. In fact, this is its main merit: the capacity to illustrate how intertwined the realities are. Some of the most suggestive shots in the film show Boston neighbourhoods in which homes, playgrounds and Catholic churches have grown together so closely that a separation is in fact very difficult to make. This is the very foundation of the abuses denounced: the border between good and evil becomes foggy for the victims, children and teenagers incapable of seeing, at least at first, a well-intentioned priest as a rapist. Because the priest first of all abuses his authority as representative of Good, disarming the consciences of children and parents.

Catholics are in general vexed by what they call repeated vilification campaigns, invoking the fact that most priests are not paedophiles. But the problem is not the statistic, it’s the Church’s prestige. In fact, this is probably the main explanation for the strategy used until the big scandals broke in recent decades. Priests were protected by dozens and dozens of bishops all over the world. Now we can look behind with concern and imagine an underground phenomenon that characterized who knows how many centuries of Catholic history. How many children and teenagers did priests abuse during two millennia of Christianity? Of course, it was always a marginal phenomenon, but the fact of being always ensconced aggravates culpabilities. The abusive priests were not punished but were implicitly allowed to continue their practices. Is this one of the worst faults for a bishop? How was such a thing possible in a Church in which the most benign eroticism was looked upon with great suspicion? As one character – based, as many others, on a real person – puts it, a “culture of secrecy” dominated in the Catholic Church, meant to hide the hypocrisy of a clergy whose sexual practices were, to a significant extent, contrary to its official doctrine. Not only does the Catholic priest have to be single – and hence entirely chaste – but his sermon can be only explicitly against sexual relations outside marriage, against homosexuality and against any premature sexual practice. Yet a worryingly high number of abusive priests were breaking all of this. Church leaders considered that casting the abusers away would be like opening Pandora’s Box – an embarrassing acceptance of the far too frequent failures in what concerns its strict sexual morality. Moreover, alongside financial scandals or questionable political associations, sexual abuses could only discredit an institution that staked decisively on its virtues. People have more expectations from the Church, even though they can understand its limits. It’s just that in this case concern with its own prestige – based on the principle according to which what is not confessed always gives you benefit of the doubt – entailed the sanctioning of a far too great a number of new abuses. Some bishops themselves were abusers, but many others simply covered up the guilty priests. Here the Church was tricked by its pride of thinking in terms of centuries – as a character points out in the film. What do a few abuses matter for a millennia-old institution. It’s just that the one which it claims to serve thought otherwise – Jesus said explicitly: whoever harms children might as well put a rock around his neck and drown. A responsible bishop could have resigned if his superiors in the Vatican failed to take measures.

In one of the film’s dialogues, taking place at a meeting of benefactors, another excuse is made: the Church is doing so much good, why should we not tolerate its “small” sins? How many times such an argument was heard throughout history! This is where our concern should intervene: no institution and no man can invoke the good done in order to justify the evil. Evil is not tolerable in this way. It’s as if one were to say that the attention given by priests to children is more important than the abuse that came with it. But behind this thinking lies the reality of a religious institution with dwindling clergy. Didn’t Pope John Paul II back Mexico’s Marcial Maciel Degollado, the charismatic leader of the “Legionnaires of Christ,” against such accusations? Accusations that were eventually proven. He was simply enthused with the order’s missionary successes. Of course, “Christian family values” were among the programmatic objectives of this Catholic order. Cardinal Law – one of the film’s characters, Archbishop of Boston in 1984-2002 – and Cardinal Pell – since 1987 deputy bishop of Melbourne and since 2001 metropolitan bishop of Sidney and Primate of Australia –, some of the most prestigious to cover up many cases of abusive priests, were “conservative,” so extremely exigent, at the level of discourse, in what concerns sexual morality. That is why the Vatican backed them. We can wonder who had the initiative of this strategy of covering up the culpable? The Popes, the local bishops or simply the force of a centuries if not millennia-old tradition?

One of the characters, a former victim who was struggling, without great success, to unmask the guilty, points out that it was not just sexual abuse, but primarily spiritual abuse. But Churches engage in spiritual abuse in many other ways, and concern for the noxious effects of these abuses is unfortunately at a low level in society. The Church itself does not have, most of the time, the moral strength to meditate on its practices which seem benign because, just like the aforementioned Pope John Paul II, it is primarily thinking about attracting and maintaining as many faithful as possible. And critics are seen as ill-meaning, simple enemies of its well-being. That is why a spiritual anti-abuse code drafted outside the Church – whatever that Church may be, even the Orthodox one – is more necessary than ever. In order not to allow Evil to hide so easily in the creases of Good. It’s not by chance that the Boston Globe investigation had at its origin a decisive impulse that came from a new director – a Jew who was not anti-Catholic but simply freer in relation to the multiple and ineffable hesitations many had even among the local journalists.

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