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1in6 Thursday: Standing in the Spotlight Without Shame
I sat in a theater in New York’s Times Square recently, soaking in every nuance of the film Spotlight. I already intimately knew the story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team’s investigation of the Archdiocese of Boston’s cover-up of sexual abuse by scores of its priests. I knew most of the characters: the reporters, the survivors, the attorneys, the Archdiocese’s higher ups. I even caught a glimpse of the name of the priest who sexually abused me back in the mid-1960s on a list of priests under review.
But what moved me most was the two adolescent boys sitting near me in the theater. They were laughing at inappropriate places and nudging one another during some of the most poignant moments in the film. Just before I leaned over to reprimand them for their disrespect, I stopped and considered the fact that they were there at all. Of 25 films showing that night in the multiplex, they’d chosen the one about sexual abuse by clergy.
The boys’ discomfort was palpable.
I realized then, that through the film, the Spotlight team’s tireless efforts were perhaps freeing two more souls from the belief that they were alone and powerless—just as the team’s long series of stories in 2002 had freed so many of us, who once felt hopeless that our experiences of betrayal by the Catholic hierarchy would ever come to light.
I remember clearly, 28 years ago this month, storming out of the Chancery Office of the Archdiocese of Boston, shouting over my shoulder "maybe I’ll go to the Boston Globe." My then-idle threat felt like the only leverage I had left after the Archdiocese refused to remove from active ministry the priest who had sexually abused me two decades earlier.
It took me another 14 years to make good on that threat. But finally, in the winter of 2002, shortly after the publication of the first of the Globe’s explosive exposes of Archdiocese’s cover-up, I worked up the nerve to contact Walter Robinson, the editorof the Globe’s Spotlight team.
I’d used therapy and done a lot of healing on my own since that day I’d left the Archdiocesan offices. I’d gone back to college, begun working as a child-protective social worker, fallen in love, gotten married, become a father—reclaimed many aspects of my life. But I rarely acknowledged or spoke about that thread of trauma and recovery that inevitably influences how I see the world.
The Spotlight team’s work opened a door that allowed me to reclaim my voice (as it did for countless other men and women). The chance they gave me to speak publicly, without shame, about the impact of the priest’s and the church’s betrayal of me was the start of a new and life-changing stage in my healing from childhood sexual abuse.
A few months later, I had the opportunity to publish an op-ed in the Globe. In it, I reflected on my disappointment at the response to the letters I’d sent in 1987 to Cardinal Bernard Law reporting the abuse, and to the conversations I’d had with Law’s deputy Fr. John McCormack, to whom I’d shouted my threat.
“As we know now, no one in the church was stirred to action by my plea or those of countless others,” I wrote in the op-ed. “But as I reread the letters now, 15 years later, I wonder; how can this be? I have before me first-hand evidence that the cardinal has had sufficient testimony, just from me, to know the depth of the harm that was being caused. And yet each morning, for at least these 15 years, he woke up and chose to ignore it. By nightfall on many of those days, another child had been callously betrayed by a working priest."
How can this be, indeed?
Shortly after the Spotlight film was released this November, a journalist friend asked if I’d like to join her and a group of other journalists to see the movie. I thought, “Wow! Isn’t that great that a bunch of journalists would be interested in seeing a film about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.”
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me a whole day to realize they were actually going to see a film about investigative journalism. But that’s the genius of Spotlight.
It offers a riveting story about each team member’s struggle to overcome his or her own disbelief and denial about the implications of what they were discovering. As a result, the film has been able to reach an audience that would likely never have gone to a movie about sexual abuse of kids.
Through that story, millions of viewers have learned that sexual abuse thrives because of collective failings, as well as individual’s. Most of us—myself included—tend to be a little complacent, a little unwilling to face an uncomfortable suspicion, a little reluctant to have a difficult conversation, a little too-blindly trusting of those we depend on; a little too scared to risk disrupting our own comfort and surety...even for the safety of a child.
For me, one of the most powerful moments in the film comes toward the end, when Walter Robinson comes to terms with that realization about himself. I can’t help but think that if each of us adults had the courage to face and act on that truth, we might actually have a chance to put an end to sexual abuse of children.
Peter Pollard is the Training and Outreach Director for 1in6, Inc. Peter previously worked for 15 years as a state, child-protection social worker and was the Public Education director at Stop It Now! Since 2003, he has served as the Western Massachusetts coordinator for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and also does work for a Certified Batterers Intervention Program.
The mission of 1in6 is to help men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood live healthier, happier lives.
1in6's mission also includes serving family members, friends, and partners by providing information and support resources on the web and in the community.
The views expressed above are not necessarily those of the Joyful Heart Foundation or 1in6.