SPOTLIGHT illuminates the unique power of journalism to uncover societal scandals

by David Pilgrim Professor of Health and Social Policy, University of Liverpool 04.02.2016

Like All The President’s Men before it, Spotlight, which was released recently to critical acclaim, reassures its audience that the American mass media is not all soundbites and superficiality at the behest of owners. Both films are stories of speaking truth to power. Both remind us that those in power anywhere in society will, as and when required, ignore, cajole, bully and bribe anyone who seeks to expose injustice and corruption linked to the status quo.

But whereas the case of All The President’s Men is limited to the corruption of one president, Spotlight is the story of an investigation into what was ultimately a global child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. At the end of this film, the director makes a point of printing a long list of all the places worldwide where the problem has been exposed, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the continuing pervasiveness of the scandal.

The historical capacity of the Catholic Church to weather such storms is one theme in Spotlight, which portrays Church leaders blithely maintaining moral authority and a faux noble silence about their own wrongdoing. The investigative team at The Boston Globe was offered one window into that hypocritical denial, tracing 87 paedophile priests in the city and taking testimonies from their victims. Given the litigious character of American society, it is not surprising that there, more than elsewhere, the Church is being bankrupted by the scale of claims against it.

The team. eOne


Marty Baron arrived at as editor of the Boston Globe from Florida in 2001, having previously edited the Miami Herald. It was Baron (who is Jewish) pushed for the story and, as an outsider to the city, he was not as subject to Boston’s power hierarchy – of which the Catholic Church was, and is, such an important part. This reflects a pattern: truth-seeking whistle blowers are often newcomers with little or no partisan investment in a culture.

As the story began to unfold, journalists started to become aware of the many ways in which the Church had protected itself. Mothers trying to make complaints were visited by priests; God’s representatives on earth. As often as not they were offered tea and biscuits with a smile. Bishops moved offenders from parish to parish, rather than reporting their crimes to the police. A cottage industry of lawyers struck out-of-court settlements with no paper trail, allowing the Church to evade public scrutiny. And when there were protests from religious staff about colleagues, their evidence was ignored by the Church hierarchy.

This systemic feature of complicity recurs in such cases all over the world. The story of clerical abuse has entailed more police collusion in countries, such as Ireland, where there has been more Church-State enmeshment. Secularism mitigates, but does not prevent, the Church being a law unto itself.

Late-night research. eOne

What all these points suggest is that the “bad apple theory” about child sexual abuse is not only empirically misleading, it also obscures the extensive complicity of third parties. It is not surprising that the “bad apple theory” is favoured by those seeking to cover up scandals and that “conspiracy theory” is a ready term of contempt from them. We need more credible theories of how conspiracies occur, rather being ashamed of our attempts.

Moral panics

The mass media has had a mixed attitude to paedophilia. On the one hand campaigns, such as those in the UK waged by The News of the World, have led to legal changes to protect children from potential perpetrators. On the other hand, at times the tabloids have vilified child protection workers for seemingly meddling in the private lives of harmless families. Social workers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

A common assumption in social science is that child sexual abuse is a moral panic, inflamed in large part by the mass media. But the ambivalence of parts of the latter undermines such an argument, especially when the journalism is not sensationalist at all, but instead takes up an investigative role usually reserved for the police.

In the case of the Catholic Church, the focus of the Boston story is on the powerful as perpetrators and as colluding with the perpetrators. Typically the powerful gain at the expense of the powerless from a moral panic being “whipped up” – but in the case of clerical abuse, the powerful Church hierarchy has attempted to suppress the moral panic.

This has resonance with the current scandals in the UK surrounding the children’s TV presenter Jimmy Savile – and also allegations made against politicians in relation to paedophilia. Such cases outline how powerful institutions can close ranks in an attempt to minimise damage. But thankfully, as Spotlight recounts in the case of the Boston scandal, journalists can still play a key role in uncovering wrongdoing.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

David Pilgrim has spent the past 30 years dividing his time equally between work in the NHS and in higher education. He is a clinical psychologist and medical sociologist and his clinical work was mainly in acute psychiatry and secure provision. His academic activity has been mainly in the field of mental health policy and the history of ideas in relation to mental abnormality. He has a wide experience in the postgraduate teaching of psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists, and has supervised several research students to PhD completion and dozens to Masters level in psychology and social work.

He has a wide experience in the postgraduate teaching of psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists. He has supervised several research students to PhD completion and dozens to Masters level in psychology and social work.

His current research interests include mental health policy and the history and philosophy of mental health and mental disorder.

David Pilgrim's published articles include:

Pilgrim, D. (2012) 'Child abuse in Irish Catholic Church settings: a non-reductionist account'. Child Abuse Review 21, 6, 405-413.

Pilgrim, D. (2011) 'The child abuse crisis in the Catholic church: international, national and personal policy aspects'. Policy and Politics 39, 3, 309-324

David Pilgrim is the author of the upcoming book Understanding Mental Health: A Critical Realist Exploration (Routledge).

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