In the shadow of 'Spotlight'

As the movie "Spotlight" comes to a close, something other than the credits flash up on the screen: a long list of dioceses around the country and the world that have been consumed by clergy sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups.

The list goes on for pages and, sitting in a theater Thanksgiving weekend, on the eve of the beginning of Advent, a silence hung over the crowd. It wasn't a shocked silence, but more of a pregnant pause, a moment of recognition and reality. And then, as the film's credits began to roll, applause began to fill the theater.

I'd gone to see the movie with my parents. At the film's end, we sat in awe as the credits scrolled. The movie wasn't a surprise; we'd lived through the breaking of the sex abuse scandal. And yet, there was something revelatory about it. "Spotlight" exposes a story that I don't know if I ever fully knew.

The film chronicles the true story of how the Boston Globe’s 'Spotlight' investigative team came to uncover the massive cover-up of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. It's a story that sadly and tragically has been repeated over and over around the world, a systemic story that, it should be noted, the National Catholic Reporter broke over 30 years ago.

"Spotlight" tracks the story in Boston through the tenacity of journalists dedicated to their craft and tested by institutional and personal allegiances. The story traces the contours of how the Globe brought to light this groundbreaking story in 2002, through hours of research, interviews, and dogged reporting.

It is a story that plays out like a modern version of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. We know what happens in the end and yet, the journey to the release of the seminal Boston Globe exposé keeps you on the edge of your seat. A story that could easily become melancholic, doesn't. The filmmakers are evenhanded in their portrayal. Emotions run high but not outlandishly so; the characters portrayed, from reporters and clergymen to lawyers and victims, capture the audience. They are not beyond imagination . . . they are us.

This is what is perhaps most striking about the film: it is real.

The story is real. The events are real. And most of all, the world on which the spotlight of the movie is cast is very real. It is a world in which darkness is more common than at times we would like to admit. It is a place where evil exists, be it in the abuse of children, the ravages of war or the senseless rampage of mass shootings and terrorism.

We are not exempt from this world and neither is God.

This weekend, I will return to the parish I grew up in for a homecoming of sorts — not for me, but for my childhood pastor. A few years ago, he was removed from the parish after allegations of abuse were made against him from someone who was at a parish he served at over 30 years ago. (Note: Having been cleared of all allegations, he returns to visit and celebrate with the parish, but will not return as pastor.)

I remember getting the call from my mother that he had been removed from ministry and not knowing how to feel. There was no knowing at the time what was true or not; due process needed to take place and in the process, the parish needed to continue functioning. As a young person giving my life to the church, I felt a mix of emotions, chief among them outrage, suspicion, sadness and doubt. To this day, some of those still remain.

When the sex abuse scandal exposed in the real life events of "Spotlight" came to light in 2002, I was a freshman in high school. Since then, I’ve found myself in the position of having to defend and consider my faith and church in relation to the revelation of these horrific acts of abuse and systemic denial. Part of my formation as a person of faith has occurred in the shadow of this reality, and yet, sitting in the theatre and watching the lurid details unfold slowly, I couldn't help but come to a deeper recognition of how the world has changed since.

The story portrayed in "Spotlight" broke nearly four months after September 11th. We all believed that the world before these two events was a safer place — even if that safety was only a false presumption, naïvely assumed and dishonestly guarded.

Abuse and terror are now, tragically, commonplace. In the shadows of such tragedy, we begin the new liturgical year, a Year of Mercy. In the shadows, we experience Advent and from the shadows, a light of hope appears. Our hope is not the promise that darkness will disappear all at once, but that our God joins us in the shadows.

There, in Paris, Syria, San Bernardino, and countless other places, Emmanuel — "God-with-us" — mourns and weeps while also shining a light on the injustices of the world. Here and now, God embraces reality. We wait in Advent darkness, but we are not alone. We can't hide in the shadows or get used to the dark. We must trust that light will shine and in all our experiences, happy or sad, joyful or tragic, God is becoming more real in our midst.

Exiting the theatre, my father leaned over to me and said the moment of applause we'd just experienced reminded him of "All the President's Men" for his generation. "Perhaps," he said, "this will be that movie for your generation."

Over the past few weeks, I've watched as social media has lit up as friends and acquaintances have gone to see "Spotlight." Their responses span the spectrum of emotions. In the end though, each has come to the same conclusion: You have to go see the movie.

It's an experience that's important for those who lived through the scandal and for those who are facing the deeper reality of it, perhaps for the first time. "Spotlight" exposes the imperfection of our world, our church and ourselves. In this season of preparation for the coming of Christ, it makes everything a little more real, a little more ready for Christ, and, interestingly enough, for me, adds a little more hope for what the future might hold. 

[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]

We want to hear from you! Take the GSR reader survey.