If you’re a moviegoer, don’t miss Spotlight, which opened earlier this month. It tells the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that broke the story about sexual abuse of children by priests. For Bostonian’s it’s a must-see. But it’s such a well-acted, well-directed film that even those with no interest in Boston or priestly behavior should find it engaging.
Sexual abuse of children is and should be a crime, whoever perpetrates it. But the story of priests who betray their calling sheds light on the most-read topic on this blog: doctor-patient sex. The further back in time we go, the more overlap we see between medicine and religion. Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha all healed sickness as well as sin. In every religion priesthood is a calling. The priest is literally called by God. I think of health care as a secular calling to which practitioners may be “called” by fidelity to our common humanity.
Spotlight shows how, priests, like physicians (especially psychiatrists), are the object of transference, that can endow them with enormous power in the eyes of their congregants/patients. When that transferential power is combined with recurrent private contact – whether in the church or the consulting room – we have the potential for great benefit or great betrayal. For too-many priests, the combination of sexual temptation in the presence of parishioners who idealized them was a devil’s brew.
For Catholic priests, celibacy adds an additional risk factor. Dylan Thomas nailed the challenge the young priest must contend with:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age: that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Spotlight dramatizes that while individual priests sinned, the system of the church protected them and neglected their victims by moving the offending priests from parish to parish. It required a diligent and courageous reportorial team to blow past the cover-up. Psychiatrists who betrayed their profession and exploited patients were not protected to the same extent, but it required the brave feminists who outed the offending physicians to stem the psychiatric abuse that was more prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s.
In an especially powerful moment, Spotlight shows a reporter speaking with Father Ronald Paquin. In a strangely dissociated manner, Father Paquin acknowledges that he “played around” with children, but never “raped” them and did not “gratify” himself, as if these claims exonerated him. Self-delusion is a powerful human capacity, and perpetrators frequently find ways to “justify” their actions. Last month Father Paquin, now 72, was released from prison. (For an earlier story, see here.)
It’s comforting to the rest of us to dismiss offending priests and physicians as bad apples. But that excuses us from our own responsibilities for governing the professions of priesthood and medicine. When the bystanders wanted to stone the woman taken in adultery, Jesus rebuked them: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.” Believers and atheists should agree that this was a true teaching.