Nice-Catholic-Girls–Turned-Atheist: Our Perspectives on “Spotlight”

Nice-Catholic-Girls–Turned-Atheist: Our Perspectives on “Spotlight” December 14, 2015

Editor’s Note: A Jesuit seminary grad (Catherine Dunphy), a former nun with Mother Teresa (Mary Johnson) and an ordinary lapsed Catholic (me), all now atheists, discuss our reactions to the film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s reporting on pedophilia in the Catholic Church. This blog post was originally intended to be a podcast, but sound problems in this, our first effort, made that impossible. Instead, we’ve excerpted relevant quotes from our 40-minute phone conversation and done a little light editing.  It’s fascinating, if I do say so myself, the participant with (gratefully) the least personal experience with this sordid subject.  UPDATE 12/23/15:  Mary Johnson is featured in an excellent “Openly Secular” video here.


By Catherine Dunphy, Mary Johnson and Linda LaScola

Mary Catherine Linda

We discuss our favorite scenes

Linda: My favorite scene was when reporter Michael Rezendes, asked about why he had left the Church, responded, “Oh you know, all the usual crap.”  As if that was enough to explain it. And it is for many Catholics.

Mary: You saw how it affected him so deeply, but he still had hope. He began that conversation talking about what the church had meant to him, and I think that is how it is for many people – they still hope somehow they might be able to go back.

Catherine: I really gravitated to Rezendes. He seemed to be the conscience of the group. Though all the characters were struggling, it was playing out most vividly with him.

The scene that struck me the most was near the end when he goes to visit the lawyer, Garabedian, to give him an advance copy of the report. Garabedian tells Michael he has to go because, “I have new clients.” He looks through the window and he sees two young kids (siblings), who have both been abused by a priest – and the look on Michael’s face in that scene, hits you in the gut. It is a subtle yet impactful way of communicating to the audience, “Wow – this is still going on!”

The other scene that stood out for me was the one with reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, when she tracked down a retired priest accused of sexual abuse. She asked him directly if he had abused children. His jargon sounded eerily familiar to me. Standing on his porch, dressed like an everyday demure, harmless older gentleman, he responded honestly that he had had sex with children, but, “I didn’t get any sexual gratification from that.” That pushing of responsibility onto the victim is something I’ve heard in the church before. Then the priest admits that he himself was raped, which is something most people are probably not aware of – that, as children, many priests were themselves victims of priests.

Characterizing the predators and their victims

Mary: That scene was extremely unsettling, because as you said the guy comes to the door, and he looks like this jolly old fellow and Sacha asked him very directly about the accused abuse. He responds, “Oh sure, I fooled around with kids,” but just as you said, Catherine, because he got no sexual gratification from it, in his mind it didn’t matter.

For him, a priest who was probably trained in the 50’s when all the emphasis was placed on sin, the fact that he didn’t have any personal satisfaction from these acts meant that he was not as guilty. It’s obviously totally absurd with no real moral sense whatsoever – but that is the way people were trained. They didn’t think about their own culpability, but rather about breaking the rules.

Catherine: Yes. My experience with the bishop of my former diocese was, “The victims are also culpable, because they participated in the abuse.” When Sacha speaks to the victims, she hears how the priests groomed their victims. The use of that word was crucial.

Mary: The victims were very often from poor single-parent families and priests would get close to the family under the guise of helping them, only to abuse the children. There was a definite pattern to it.

I recall the scenes that took place in Michael’s kitchen, after work, getting those phone calls from Richard Sipe [psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk]. You do not ever see him. You only ever hear his voice over the phone, always talking to Michael, and he tries to explain that this is a real problem, that he has been after clergy about this since 1985. In the movie, they say that only about 50% of priests are celibate, but if you read Sipe’s work, you see that he says, “At any given time only about 50% of priests are practicing celibacy.“ Therefore, over a lifetime, many priests have violated their vow of celibacy. I think that is accurate – but it’s usually with consenting adults. But that 6% that he pinpointed as the number of Catholic clergy acting out sexually with children is just mind boggling – that he was able to predict the number! When he was asked, “Do you think it could be as many as 13 priests?” he said, “No, I think that number is very low.” It turned out to be 87. Close to the 90 he predicted.

When they told their boss, he said, “We need more than a metric from a hippy ex-priest.” As an ex-nun I know that is how former clergy are generalized. We don’t get lot of credibility, especially former Catholic clergy.

Catherine: Listening to those phone conversations between Michael and Sipe, I was wondering if we would ever see Sipe. When we didn’t, I found myself thinking that he was kind of like the voice of God. Without Sipe, the reporters wouldn’t have known what to look for, like the discovery of the annual directories. That was an epiphany, when they began combing through the books and circling the names of the priests who had gone on leave. It showed that the diocese was actually documenting this phenomenon.

Mary: The big thing about the Boston Globe reporting that was different from earlier reporting was they weren’t just exposing individual cases; they were determined to show that the corruption went all the way to the top; that this was a cover up, that this was something even bigger than the Boston Archdiocese, that it is endemic throughout the church. They were the first journalists to do that.


Catherine: At the end the film where they list the dioceses where major sex abuse scandals were confirmed, I saw my former diocese among those listed. That was a strangely uplifting moment.

Mary: I went to the Vatican website and read the review of the movie in Italian, and it’s interesting. It starts with comparing how the airplanes flew into the twin towers: “As airplanes shook the twin towers, quietly just a few miles to the east there was a shaking of the foundation of the Archdiocese of Boston, unbeknownst to many people and about to be revealed.” They talk about the journalists’ vocation. Good for the Vatican!

Catherine: I’m going to be critical about the Vatican’s reaction, because the former archbishop of Boston was promoted and moved to Rome. The Vatican would say that this is a problem of the American Church. Well, in my mind, it’s the church in general. We are looking at information from North America and Europe but I imagine that in the developing world, this problem is much, much worse.

Mary: In Africa, I don’t know about the abuse of children, but I am aware that many priests see convents as places where they can go for free sex. This is a widely reported phenomenon. Sometimes they’ll make deals with the Mother Superior — “We’ll give you food, and you’ll give me Sister So-and-So.”

[Linda gasps.]

Catherine and Mary on Catholic Treatment Centers

Catherine: I think this movie is the tip of an iceberg. In seminary, I was keenly aware of this institution called Southdown, started in the 60’s, which is just north of Toronto. It is basically where all priests go when they get into trouble, whether it’s mental health, alcoholism or pedophilia. Their motto is “healthy leaders for a healthy church.”

Mary: Those centers exist all over the place. I was in a center briefly, while I was on leave from the Sisters, that did not accept pedophiles. They did help a lot of people, but there were people there who had been caught in other sexual scandals, or addictions, or just trying to make decisions about their vocation. I feel like I am on the inside of the story because of my knowledge of this treatment center.

This reminds me of another thing that I loved about this movie. Matt Carroll, the database researcher, discovered that there was a treatment center just a block from his house. He wanted to break the story but also wanted to protect his kids, so he put a note on the fridge with a photo of the house telling his kids not to go near that house. Then when they finally published the story, on the Feast of the Epiphany of all days, Matt drops a paper on the front step of the house, and I thought, “Yes!”

Mary reveals more Catholic exploitation

Mary: While I was still in the convent in 1985, the scandal in Louisiana broke and that was the first one that investigative reporter Jason Berry wrote about. And again I sort of feel like I am inside the story, because at that time, the diocese reached out to Mother Teresa and asked her if she would bring her sisters to Lafayette, Louisiana, because, they needed public relations help.   We needed to show the good face of the Church because of this trial. I actually travelled there with Mother Teresa on a private plane and it was interesting to watch her knowing that she was being brought there, not to help the poor, but because the priests had messed up and she needed to repair the image of the church. She was continually used like this, especially as the scope of the abuse scandal worsened.

Linda explains her relative silence

Linda: Something I notice, Catherine and Mary, is that you seem so much angrier about this abuse. Its not like I’m not angry, but I now realize how lucky I was to be so removed from it. It had so much more of an effect on people who were loyal Catholics.

Mary wraps it up

Mary: The mood in the movie became heavier and heavier as the reporters began gathering information. The audience was watching their quiet perseverance and professionalism during this investigation and how the passion grew in them. It was one way of showing something that people don’t like to talk about — raping children. It was important for me when the reporter Sacha said to one of the victims, “The language is really important. It won’t be enough to say that you were simply molested. People will need to hear how horrible it was.” Focusing on the abuse would have made watching this film very, very difficult. Focusing on the reporting made it easier. Even so, it was hard.

**Editor’s Question** If you’ve seen the movie, what was your favorite scene and why?


>>>>>Photo Credits: “Spotlight (film) poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

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