When Spotlight, the drama about the Boston Globe’s past investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, somewhat unexpectedly took the best picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, it shone a renewed global spotlight on a scandal that continues to reverberate at the highest levels of the church. Since 2002 when Globe journalists broke the story of what was happening in the Boston archdiocese, over 3,400 cases have been brought to the attention of the Vatican.
Just hours before the Oscar ceremony, Vatican treasurer Cardinal George Pell had testified before Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse on the numerous failings in how clerical abuse allegations had been handled dating back decades. Some have accused Pell of being complicit in that regard. While he did not admit to any personal responsibility, he told the inquiry: “I’m not here to defend the indefensible. The church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those, but the church in many places, certainly in Australia, has mucked things up, has let people down. . . . There’s a tendency to evil in the Catholic Church too, and sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but for good or for ill, the church follows the patterns of the societies in which it lives.”
In other words, the church needs forgiveness for its sins and a process of reconciliation as much as any other area of society. This moment of reckoning could become an Easter opportunity for atonement and renewal.
I find it heartening that Spotlight was screened at the Vatican for the commission set up by Pope Francis to deal with the scourge of sex abuse of minors. The day after Spotlight’s Oscar win the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano praised the film as an accurate portrayal and “not anti-Catholic.” While cautioning that “predators do not necessarily wear ecclesiastical vestments, and pedophilia does not necessarily stem from the vow of chastity,” the paper’s front-page editorial acknowledged “it is now clear that, in the church, too many people concerned themselves more with the image of the institution than the gravity of the act.” Moreover, the Spotlight filmmakers’ call for action from the Oscar podium was welcomed as a positive signal that “there is still trust in the institution and in a pope who is pressing ahead with the cleaning up begun by his predecessor.”
Still, the trust that was lost will not be easily restored. There are plenty of skeptics, including among the faithful, and especially among survivors of sexual abuse, who have felt the betrayal most keenly.
Although it won’t get nearly the attention accorded Spotlight, there is another excellent 2015 film that penetrates this disturbing situation and the challenge it poses to church authorities. This is The Club from prominent Chilean director Pablo Larraín. The film is making its way into a few Canadian theatres many months after it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2015 where it was awarded the “silver bear” grand jury prize. Although the film is a work of fiction, the stories it probes are all too plausible.
Larraín is best known for a trilogy of remarkable features that uncovered dark corners of Chilean life during the Pinochet dictatorship (Post Mortem, Tony Manero, No). In The Club he turns his unsparing lens on a small group of fallen members of the church who have failed to live up to their religious vows. They live together almost hidden away in a house in the coastal village of La Boca. The members of this “club” are four wayward priests and a nun, resigned to a sort of spiritual exile. The priests are Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro), Father Ortega (Alejandro Goic), Father Silva (Jaime Vadell) who had been an army chaplain, and the addled elderly Father Ramirez (Alejandro Sieveking). The nun, Sister Monica (played by Larraín’s wife Antonia Zegers), takes charge of the housekeeping duties as the men pass the time and indulge a rather unpenitential passion for pet greyhound dogs that they are preparing to compete in a national racing circuit. La Boca harbours a religious outpost that has literally gone to the dogs. While house rules and obligatory prayers are observed, by and large this purgatorial refuge has become a rather cosy hideaway from the residents’ scandal-plagued pasts.
That is until another troubled priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), arrives and their placid existence is upset by a local fisherman, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), who recognizes him. Sandokan, fuelled by alcohol and rage, starts shouting in the street about graphic details of the abuses he claims he was subjected to by Father Lazcano when he was a boy. So much for the club’s quiet anonymity. And a crisis looms when the accusations provoke a shocking suicide.
The church hierarchy reacts by sending a young priest, Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso), a trained psychologist with missionary experience in Africa, to investigate and figure out what to do. He has extensive files at his disposal, including records of confessions, and sternly interrogates the members of the club. An ominous picture emerges of patterns of misconduct, not just of preying on children but of abducting babies born to unwed mothers. Father Garcia bans the use of alcohol and lays down some strict rules. He is not aggressive but he has no time for denials or evasions. There are frank discussions about pedophilia, homosexuality, and feelings of self-loathing. He treats the members of the club as damaged individuals in need of healing as much as their victims.
The residents, however, suspect that Father Garcia has an agenda to close down their house. Arguments escalate when he demands they get rid of the dogs. Meanwhile, the aggrieved Sandokan continues to verbally harass the club like a madman possessed. Father Garcia reaches out to try to help him, to ease the pain of his terrible burden. But he is unable to prevent another shocking act of violence that leads to Sandokan being assaulted. As Garcia patches up the beaten man and kisses his feet, he forces a repentant deal on the club: they must take in Sandokan and care for him, or else.
The movie closes with the words of the liturgy: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Give us peace.”
What Larraín exposes in The Club makes for very unsettling viewing. At times it may seem like the church is just trying to protect itself, to find a way to put all the bad publicity behind it. But in the figure of Father Garcia there is both justice — an honest accounting of guilt — and a path to forgiveness.
That is not such a bleak outlook for what Pope Francis hopes will be a “church of mercy” for all.