Earlier this week, I finally went to see the movie Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s systematic cover up of sexual abuse of childen by its priests. Although my friends who had seen it had reassured me it wasn’t triggering, I wasn’t sure how it would make me feel, and was really nervous even as we bought our tickets. While parts of it were difficult to watch and listen to, for the most part it was very cathartic and healing. Ultimately, I am very happy I watched it, and my friend noted as we left the theater that I was already in full-on advocate mode.
The parallels between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish community were striking. Both communities have a strong reliance on our leaders to show us the way in our religious practices. A survivor in the movie, Phil Saviano, said that “When a priest does this to you, he robs you of your faith.” When a member of the rabbinate sexually abuses a child, the child’s faith is stolen. But even when it is an ordinary member of the community, a child’s faith is robbed from them, and what they associate with their abuser becomes brutal — including that they are a member of their own community.
The relentless lawyer who is suing the Church, Mitch Garabedian (himself an ‘outsider’ to the Catholic Church, played by Stanley Tucci), tells one of the journalists “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” We live in tight-knit communities where families are closer than most, and where neighbors are like family. This is usually a beautiful thing — when we are all working together to help raise our children, and nobody is subjecting them to abuse. But shuffling abusers from city to city is not unique to the Catholic Church. There are too many instances in our world where a child or parent has spoken up about an abuser, only to see them moved to a new pulpit job or teaching position in a different city, guaranteeing them a fresh start with no consequences to the abuse they perpetuated on an innocent child.
Our tight-knit village gives us an additional responsibility. None of us are bystanders. We are all parents, neighbors, synagogue goers, and fellow Jews. Our children rely on us to protect them, and we cannot fail them. We can never turn back the clock and undo abuse. We can’t take a chance with a child’s life, his or her health, or future.
Oftentimes, we complain about the lack of advocacy and proactive action by the leaders in our community towards child sexual abuse. But this is not uncommon. In Spotlight, it took a new editor to the Boston Globe — “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball”, as it is put in the movie — to get the ball rolling on the topic of systematic abuse within the Catholic Church. It often takes an outsider to shine a light and start the process of exposing the cover-ups within a community. It takes someone who is not bound by an institution and loyal to a board who can bring about the most change initially.
“They knew and they let it happen. It could have been you. It could have been me. It could have been any of us… Were we just lucky?” In one of Michael Keaton’s most memorable moments of the film, he brought home an important point. Child sexual abuse affects every race, gender, ethnic group, religion, and socioeconomic class. The numbers were incredibly high. Over 150 priests in Boston alone were reported to have abused children, with over 600 victims who have come forward… and that’s just in the Catholic Church, in one city. Do we dare to think what the numbers might be in the Jewish community as a whole? How many abusers still roam free? How many survivors are still living in shame with a deep, dark secret? If you were not abused, you are lucky. Because those of us who were question everyday “Why did he or she pick me? What did I do wrong?” The answer is nothing, we did nothing wrong. The others just got lucky — pretty darn lucky if you ask me.
But I’ll take my stroke of unluckiness over being lucky. Being so unlucky has made me more resilient, empathetic, and able to stand up and speak up. We all know child sexual abuse exists within our castle walls now, so what are we going to do about it? Where will we be, what will we do, when we hear about allegations made against a community member? Will we support the victim, help them have a voice, let them know we care? Or will we “try not to talk about such things”, leave it to others to take care of, trust that our leadership “will know what to do”?
“Sometimes we spend a lot of time stumbling around in the dark until the light gets turned on, and there’s a fair share of the blame to go around.” The spotlight is shining. Let’s clean out the mess and do our best to never let it happen again.