I saw the movie “Spotlight” this morning, and it exceeded my expectations in every way. It’s definitely an Oscar contender, and I think it’s a film everyone should see. Not only does “Spotlight” do a great job of dramatizing the Boston Globe’s investigation into the abuse scandal, but it also shows the extent to which Boston was controlled not just by the Catholic church but by what one could call “the old Irish boy’s club” that demanded silence from priests, police, survivors, their families, and entire communities. Indeed, it seems like many Bostonians had direct knowledge of abusive priests, but assumed that it was just that one guy and the church knew how to handle things. The willingness for communities to turn a blind eye to abusive priests leads a lawyer working for abuse victims to proclaim (and here I’m paraphrasing), “It takes a village to raise a child, and a village to abuse one.”
Some people might take offense to such a statement, but it’s really true. How many times have you heard a local news story about an abused and/or murdered child, where teachers, neighbors, and other relatives knew something was wrong, but didn’t intervene? Agencies like CPS get a lot of flak, most of it justified, for letting children fall through the cracks, but in many cases, blame can be extended to individuals and institutions closer to the children in question. The more notorious priests like John Geoghan, Paul Shanley, and Joseph Birmingham explicitly targeted kids from impoverished, broken homes, knowing not only that such children would be the least likely to complain about excessive attention from a father figure, but they would also be the least likely to tell and the easiest to discredit. In many cases, other people — nuns, priests assigned to the same parish, janitors, lay administrators — knew or suspected something was wrong, but didn’t say anything because of a fear of “scandalizing the faithful” or because they had been threatened into silence.
It’s interesting that child molestation is generally seen as the worst thing imaginable, but in far too many cases, the public will blame the victim. In this case from Missouri, a junior deacon at a Protestant church (not sure of the denomination) admitted to and was convicted of abusing a young girl for ten years, starting when she was five years old, yet the community called the victim a “liar” and rallied around the abuser:
“There are certainly a few good people in this community who have offered support to this young victim,” said Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd. “It is shocking, however, that many continue to support a defendant whose guilt was never in doubt. If it takes a village to raise a child, what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?”
Community members simply don’t believe the girl, reported the Kansas City Star.
“Only God, Darren and (the victim) know what truly happened,” said Gene Blankenship, a trustee at the New Market Christian Church in Dearborn. “I feel Darren may have admitted to things he did not do after hours of interrogation and all the pressure to admit guilt.”
Reading stories like this makes one realize how the dynamics that created the Catholic sex abuse crisis are still present in many communities. Being a deacon, priest, minister, rabbi, or imam does not mean that one is a “good person” or even a law-abiding citizen, and we shouldn’t assume that religious people are any better than other kinds of people. It’s easy to be horrified about the proverbial creep in a raincoat hanging around playgrounds, but rather less so about the creep next door. Child abusers and molesters don’t walk around with signs on their backs. In fact, abuse by total strangers is relatively rare, while abuse by a “trusted adult” is disturbingly common. The only way to prevent future abuse crises is to be the keepers of our neighbors’ children, and not look the other way for fear of “scandal” or because it’s comfortable and convenient.