Secrecy hides a lot of evils

Herald & Review
March 13, 2016

Newspaper people have a special fondness for movies about newspapers, especially when journalists are depicted as heroes.

So, it’s not a big surprise that several Herald & Review staffers enjoyed a special showing of the Academy Award winning move "Spotlight" at the Avon Theater a week ago.

The movie, which won for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, hasn’t been seen widely. It didn't show in Decatur and has seen a limited run in other theaters in Central Illinois. Although it’s an extremely well-made movie, it doesn’t have the explosions and special effects that are popular in movies these days.

But it’s a movie worth seeing, now that it’s available on DVD and by other methods. It depicts the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese and the cover up and transfers of priests that sexually abused young children.

What’s impressive about the movie is that it honors the reporting process in a compelling way. Much of what journalists do during the day isn’t especially exciting. There is a lot of time spent in meetings, reading documents and talking to sources that either won’t share their stories or don’t have accurate information. "Spotlight" depicts that process accurately. It also deals with how journalists sometimes fail. In this case, the Globe had been warned about the number of priests involved in sexual abuse years earlier, but had ignored the story.

"Spotlight" also gets the small details right. Anyone who has worked in a newsroom will recognize the poor eating habits, the cynical comments and the messy desks. It’s an honest movie about the hard work that goes into producing journalism on a daily basis.

But there’s another lesson in this movie that nearly everyone should consider.

The priests involved in this abhorrent behavior were allowed to escape practically unpunished, and were placed back in positions where they could repeat the abuse, multiple times. Secrecy was at the root of this problem.

The abused and their parents were paid small amounts and shamed by the church into remaining silent. Law enforcement was a part of the cover-up, often knowing that a crime had been committed but agreeing to allow the church to handle it. The church used lawyers and sealed court documents to cover up these crimes. The excuse was often to "protect the victims." But it’s the abusers, and the Catholic Church, that was actually being protected.

Boston isn’t the only instance, either. As we all know, abuse by priests has been a worldwide scandal for the Catholic Church. The church has undoubtedly suffered because of its desire to cover up the issue, rather than deal with it directly.

At the core is secrecy. If the police records in Boston had been public, it’s highly unlikely this abuse would have continued. If the court records hadn’t been sealed, it’s probable that someone would have noticed them and reported the story much, much earlier. It’s unknown how many abuses that would have prevented. Many victims committed suicide. It’s not a stretch to say that more openness would have saved lives.

We depend on open records and meetings so that the public can be informed. The disagreements over these issues may sometimes seem to border on nit-picking and making government take steps that seem unnecessary.

But these issues are important to protect taxpayers and others. Sometimes, being open and transparent can actually save lives.




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