The 2015 movie Spotlight didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences purely on the strength of its production values or the performances of its A-list cast, led by Michael Keaton as Boston Globe Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes. Personally, I believe it also earned that honor by representing in dramatic form their investigation into one of the most egregious stains on human society: the sexual abuse of children by priests of the Roman Catholic Church and the further perfidy of the church’s attempts to hide those crimes from the world. Indeed, the movie doesn’t even stop there. In the Spotlight team’s examination of both the crime of child sexual assault and the conspiracy to cover up the evidence, they are confronted with the fundamental question which is at the heart of the entire matter in the person of abuse victim Phil Saviano:
When you're a poor kid from a poor family, religion counts for a lot, and when a priest pays attention to you, it's a big deal. He asks you to collect the hymnals or take out the trash, you feel special. It's like God asking for help. So maybe it's a little weird when he tells you a dirty joke, but now you got a secret together, so you go along. Then he shows you a porno mag, and you go along. And you go along and you go along, until one day he asks you to jerk him off or give him a blow job, and so you go along with that too, because you feel trapped because he has groomed you. How do you say “No” to God, right?
That last is truly the $64 question, isn’t it? How does anyone turn away from what has become an integral part of your culture, particularly in a city like Boston where something like 53% of the population is Catholic or at least identifies as such?
While I have never been sexually abused, I’d like to offer my answer to Saviano’s question. How does anyone say no to god under such circumstances? The initial steps are pretty obvious. Perhaps by first of all recognizing what actually happened. That event wasn’t some dream. It was real. A child was molested and worse, by someone that child implicitly trusted: a priest. Stipulated, with the enormous emotional trauma that is associated with sexual abuse, coming to that conclusion can take years or decades, and from what I have heard and seen from actual victims, this is frequently the case.
The next step is confrontation and the pursuit of justice. This isn’t just a matter of someone being wronged; a crime was committed, and that means the involvement of law enforcement and the judicial system. Too often, this is an even harder nut to crack, because with the time it took to come to terms with that horror, the statute of limitations has likely expired and with it any chance of recompense through the criminal justice system. Certainly a civil suit seeking damages is an option and one which has been employed multiple times to gain some form of payback. That extracts a price of the Catholic organization, but it fails to mete out justice to the actual perpetrators. That failure in large portion is why I suspect the pattern of abuse continues, even with exposure in the press and media such as this movie.
Such steps address the church and the culprits, but that still leaves out the real causative element: god, itself. It is the invented concept of god which empowered those priests and bishops and archbishops and cardinals to gain the trust of their parishioners, to take the actions they did, and to use the doctrine of their religion to so frighten their victims that their crimes could be repeated again and again and again and almost never be challenged. Remove the idea of a god and, while such systematic abuse might still be possible, it would be far more difficult to accomplish on the same scale.
How do you say, “No” to god? By realizing that god is a lie, that it is an invention designed to put individuals under control of presumed authorities for the purpose of arrogation of power. Saying no to god at least begins the process of saying yes to oneself, to self-empowerment and self-ownership and a rejection of this persistent fantasy which in the final analysis enslaves rather than serves the individual.
Ultimately, saying “No” to god means recognizing that god simply doesn’t exist.