I’ve seen the feature film “Spotlight,” currently in theaters, which portrays the investigation by The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team that resulted in the breaking open of the priest sex-abuse scandal in early 2002.
Over at my Pax Culturati blog at Patheos, I lauded the film and expressed wonder at the benevolence of the Holy Spirit in maintaining and supporting the Church through this long Lent of atoning for her sins.
How is it that we still exist as a coherent entity at all, in the wake of what we did? Forget that the overwhelming bulk of the abuse cases are decades in the past, that we’ve taken huge steps to clean up our act, that other places and people do it, too – we’re Christ’s Pilgrim Church on Earth, and our priests put their hands on children.
Battered, bruised and broken, we are still here. Despite our worst sins, people continue to be drawn to us. We have moral standing beyond the faithful, with even people that disagree with us looking to the Church and the pope for guidance. And we still have vocations and converts.
The only real answer is this: We are the Church founded by Christ, who set the Holy Spirit over her to guide and sustain her. He has promised to stand with us until the end of time. Despite our best efforts to wreck the Barque of Peter, He remains at the tiller, and the Holy Spirit endures as our compass and North Star.
This should not make us proud. It’s not our doing. We are merely the beneficiaries of divine grace. We don’t deserve it, but it’s given nonetheless.
We should have destroyed ourselves long ago, and yet we are still here.
But, “Spotlight” is a scripted movie, not a news documentary, and one criticism I do have of it is that it’s unrelentingly negative. There are no positive portrayals of faithful Catholic lay people or clergy. Also, while the film ends with a painful litany of places where abuse happened, no mention is made of how the Church has responded to the scandals — not just in paying out damages to victims (which is only right and proper) but also in revamping education and procedures to prevent this from happening again.
More needs to be done, but the results can be seen in that stories of institutional child sexual abuse now come overwhelmingly from secular sources, such as public schools, sports teams, Penn State, the entertainment industry, scouting, etc. (click here for a long piece on the subject I did for Breitbart).
All that being said, it appears that “Spotlight” has done damage of its own, and not to one of the perpetrators.
In the film, Paul Guilfoyle plays Pete Conley, a fictional character who acts as a “fixer” for the Church, which is portrayed at times with almost Mafia-like overtones. He’s given a lot of the more ominous, threatening or dismissive lines — but not all of them.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn — also a graduate and trustee at Jesuit (but not diocesan) Boston College High School — is portrayed in a dramatic scene with Spotlight editor (and fellow high-school alumnus) Walter “Robby” Robinson and reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), in which his character professes a lack of knowledge about a serial abuser at the high school and says:
“It’s a big school, Robbie, you know that. And we’re talking about seven alleged victims over, what, eight years?”
In real life, Jack Dunn says, not only did he not say this but that after Robinson told him what the Globe had learned about the abuse by priests at BC High, he drew up for the school’s board of trustees a four-point plan to address the allegations with transparency and compassion.
“I proposed to the board that we create a hotline so alums can call in and report anything they know; hire an independent child advocate to review each case; report any criminality to the police; and provide counseling and compensation for the victims. There was input from others, but that essentially became the plan,” Dunn said.
The real-life meeting with Globe reporters, Dunn said, was cordial, not confrontational.
“We said we didn’t know anything, that there were no files,” Dunn said. “But we weren’t denying or minimizing anything.”
According to a video interview with Boston PBS station WGBH posted below, Dunn says an earlier version of the script gave the line to the fictional character Conley, rather than putting the words in the mouth of a real person (which is why fictional or composite characters are created in the first place).
From a story by Boston CBS station WBZ:
“I left the theater and I was so overcome with shock and emotion that I threw up,” [Dunn] says.
Dunn says he is so heartsick because his actual role was to help the school reach out to victims and confront the issue with transparency. Many of the victims were Dunn’s classmates and friends.
“It was lauded by the Globe as a model approach, so to see it completely fabricated in the scene was just devastating to me,” he says.
It’s equally devastating to his family, including his son, a current BC High senior who Dunn says stepped up to defend his father when his class went together to see the film.
“As boys do they kind of looked around and my son stood up and said ‘I need you to know my father’s a very good man’ and that my son had to defend me for doing the right thing on behalf of people that I love on behalf of the truth has been very difficult for me.”
Dunn has hired a lawyer who has now issued a letter demanding that the scene be stricken from the movie and that producers admit this was a fabrication about him done for dramatic effect so that the focus can back where it belongs on the victims of clergy abuse.
It’s likely impossible to know the exact sequence of events and intent that led to lines being given to Dunn’s character that don’t seem to represent what actually happened.
“Spotlight” director and co-writer (with Josh Singer) Tom McCarthy responded to the Globe with an email that smells a lot like he consulted the studio’s PR and legal teams before writing it. He refused a subsequent request to do an interview that addressed the question directly (when poked in a sensitive place, entertainment types tend to pull their heads back inside their shells and stay there).
“We spent enormous time researching in depth what happened in Boston — interviewing individuals, reviewing e-mails, poring over court documents. The movie is based on real events and uses, by necessity, scenes and dialogue to introduce characters, provide context, and articulate broad themes. That is true of every movie ever made about historical events.
“We understand that not everyone will embrace the way they are portrayed in the film, but we feel confident, based on our extensive research, that the movie captures with a high degree of authenticity the nature of events, personalities, and pressures of the time.”
As generally fair-minded as “Spotlight” is, it’s evident that the Catholic Church is the story’s “big bad,” to which no quarter is given — and that goes for all the Catholics portrayed. That could be for dramatic effect or it may be that the filmmakers felt merciless toward the Church and allowed that to bleed over into being merciless to individual Catholics.
If Catholics have learned anything, it’s that you can’t serve Truth with a lie. It’s long past time Hollywood learned that as well.
Dunn in his own words:
Image: Courtesy Open Road Films