To Understand the System. On Tom McCarthy’s Film, Spotlight

Stanisław Obirek

The significance of this Oscar-winning investigation into the phenomenon of paedophilia within the Roman Catholic Church is not limited to its realistic reconstruction of ‘how it actually was’. More important is the question of whether Spotlight will succeed in shocking Polish Catholics and increasing their sensitivity to the whole problem of abuse, as well as to individual cases.

I saw this film on a Sunday afternoon in a packed cinema. After it ended, the audience burst into spontaneous applause—something which does not occur frequently. My many years’ experience as a priest automatically placed me in the position of an expert in the eyes of acquaintances I encountered in the cinema. They asked questions such as; ‘What do you think of this?’, ‘Is the extent of the phenomenon similar in Poland?’, ‘Has anything really changed with the pontificate of Francis?’. I have certainly followed affairs within the Church since my departure from the Jesuit Order, although the Church and questions of belief interest me now as cultural rather than religious phenomena. The manner in which the Church deals with its internal problems is clearly important, but much more significant to me is the question of how a religious body operates in the democratic public sphere. American society is rather unusual in relation to this issue: on the one hand, the American constitution clearly separates church and state, on the other American society does not hide and frequently flaunts its religious beliefs. The role of religion in American life is different from that in Poland, which makes comparison risky, although this does not meant this should not be attempted. One must always remember that the local atmosphere is the decisive factor. In other words, any attempt at comparison, while it needs to underline the difference between the two situations, is not always able to explain the reasons for this difference.

In my case, from 1976 to 2005, I not only lived within the structures of the Church but was also frequently in the United States and, indeed in Boston. The Boston College, the Jesuit institution shown in the film, is well-known to me, while the Boston Globe, whose journalists are the heroes of the film, was my daily reading. This was also the case when ‘Spotlight’, a division of the Globe was publishing material from its investigation which brought to light thousands of cases of paedophilia committed by priests in the Boston area. In addition, one of the principal columnists of the Globe, James Carroll, although not a member of the Spotlight team, was a friend of mine. He is also a former priest—the author of many books, but, above all, a penetrating observor of the religious scene in Boston.[1]

Fortitude and Shame

For Boston Catholics, the series of articles on paedophilia within their diocese and the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, was a real shock with which they have not yet come to terms. However, most astonishing has been the fact that the hierarchy does not seem to have understood why it was the subject of criticism and in what its fault consisted. This was also not understood by Pope John Paul II, who, as a sign of his recognition of Cardinal Law’s ‘fortitude’ in the face of a ‘media witch-hunt’, appointed him, on his resignation, to the position of arch-priest in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, which he held until his retirement in November 2011. In legal terms, this ‘fortitude’ was described by the prosecutor in this case as ‘an institutional failure in its dealing with this problem which meant that [Cardinal Law] made choices which allowed criminal actions to continue’. The Vatican assessed his behaviour differently, making him a member of most of its congregations and allowing him to remain one of the most influential figures in the Vatican during the pontificates of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

I write about this to underline the exceptional character of the achievements of the Boston Globe. It was possible to live for many years in Boston and not be aware of the phenomena which the film describes. Or rather, one could say that Catholics were, in general, not conscious of the seriousness of the problem of paedophilia in the Church. Even, when—like myself—one was part of the system for many years. For there are many Boston Jesuits, lay people employed by church institutions and ordinary Catholics, included those who feature in Spotlight, for whom the crimes of scores of priests were and are something unimaginable. This may also be the opinion of the victims, who did not believe that those responsible for the tragic character of their lives could be punished. In a word, the result of this journalistic investigation and the way it exposed the whole problem, shook the foundations of the Catholic Church, not only in Boston, but in the whole United States and later in other countries. This was, above all, the case in Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Unfortunately—not in Poland. It may be that the film will change this. Above all because it provides a language in which one can speak of these difficult matters. The key word is ‘cover-up’; in colloquial terms ‘sweeping things under the carpet’. Clearly, paedophilia is not only committed by Catholic priests, but no other group is (should one now say ‘was’?) as effectively protected from its consequences as they are.

Unruly Catholics

I am writing about Spotlight late, but at important moment when the award of an Oscar makes its impact all the greater. I thus make my contribution when all internet portals, dailies and weeklies have already been able to review the film. For me Spotlight is not only a masterly description of the process of journalistic investigation. Its most devastating aspect is the resistance of Catholic society to accepting the truth about its own institution. All those who carried out the investigation were local Catholics. Each had to confront a personal dilemma, which certainly did not make the investigation easier. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), of Portuguese origin, was very strongly attached to the Church and was painfully affected by the compromising aspects of its behaviour. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who was particularly effective in speaking both to victims and those guilty of preying on them, at the same time wanted to spare her pious grandmother from her painful revelations. The exception was the new editor—Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber)—a Jew. Yet his lack of involvement in local society also did not facilitate his work, since he was subjected to strong pressure to stop the investigation—and that from Cardinal Law himself.

Indeed, the main problem is that of ‘good Catholics’, working for the whole of society and aware of the value of religion in inculcating values within it. But the film also describes a legal system used by the Church to put pressure on the victims to agree to compromises which are not to be made public. The perpetrators of these crimes, although they are the least visible of those who appear in Spotlight, seem quite unaware of their dreadful nature. This is not the case with Cardinal Law and the priests directly under him. The Cardinal was the embodiment of an effectively functioning system, made up of concrete people: judges, lawyers, policemen, journalists. 

Why is it different in Poland?

A few years ago, I wrotean essay, together with Ekke Overbeek, a Dutch journalist working in Poland, ‘Why is the Church in the Netherlands different?’ My co-author was not an accidental choice.  For he is the author of an important book Lękajcie się. Ofiary pedofilii w polskim Kościele mówią (Be Afraid. Victims of paedophilia in the Polish Church Speak; Warsaw, 2103).  We both came to the conclusion that the different character of Polish Catholicism has many sources, but perhaps the most important is the almost universal acceptance of hypocrisy, of equivocal and, to speak bluntly, hypocritical behaviour. This is the basis for the specific situation in Poland, which I would link with the domination of one denomination, which does not have equal partners in the form of other religions or Christian denominations. As a result, the Catholic Church in Poland readily speaks in the name of religion and treats criticism of its institutional abuses as an attack on God himself. Thus our situation is much more difficult than in other countries. Even those few victims who have decided to go public have had to deal with social condemnation, dislike and even open hostility. As a result, perhaps the most appropriate title for Overbeek’s book should be ‘What Poland prefers to remain silent about’.

I don’t know if this is the appropriate place to mention an aspect of my own autobiography, which I dealt with in my last book, Polak katolik (Pole, Catholic; Warsaw, 2015), where I discussed my childhood at length. This relates to my experiences as a young boy, in the early 1960s, in a small Polish town. It is a case of molestation by a local priest, who was universally revered. I was not his only victim. Some left the Church, others remained. I first left but then returned and remained for many years. Ten years ago I again left—for good. I never encountered a journalist like Sacha Pfeiffer, who could have asked me, ‘Staszek, what was it like’. And if it was indeed Fr. J.M., transferred from the parish for a reason that everyone knew and no-one talked about.

Then in secondary school—another priest, a catechist of secondary schools, universally respected, even surrounded by an aura of martyrdom, since his life was association with the fate of Cardinal Wyszynski. He was also removed to another parish. After an article in the weekly Nie, in which his practice of molesting ministrants was clearly described he committed suicide. I tried many times to speak of my experiences, also after I joined the Jesuit Order. No-one, literally no-one, was interested in them. Therefore I ‘forgot’ about them. However, sometimes I remembered, as during the showing of the film Spotlight. I don’t know how far my case is typical or isolated. I know of no research on this topic and I know that the Church is unwilling to undertake such research. Perhaps it would be worth undertaking it, if only to show that the Polish Church is also not free of sin.


My torturers are no longer alive and this is certainly why I have written about them. But I am a person of advancing years (this year I will be sixty). I hold the view, however, that it is important to remember what happened because it is necessary to name concrete crimes and their perpetrators. As was done by the journalists of the Boston Globe. Perhaps it is also necessary to give the names of their victims, who are still alive and who, perhaps, as in the film Spotlight are not really able to deal with life. The Church owes them compensation, concrete help and not only the usual ‘apology’. Perhaps Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska, who reviewed the film for the Krytyka Polityczna, was right when she suggested that all high school students should be sent to see this film. In my view, Spotlight should be seen, above all, by Polish bishops and priests, in particular by those who have expended much energy in covering up crimes of paedophilia in their dioceses.

What next?

In recent days, there has been an avalanche of discussion on the issue of the supposed new directions given by the Vatican in the matter of paedophilia. Reports have claimed that Pope Francis ‘has strongly gone after paedophiles in the Church’ and ‘feels great sympathy’ with their victims. As is well-known, the main person responsible for this issue in the Polish Catholic Church is the Jesuit Fr. Adam Żak. One should not therefore be surprised that the Jesuit website has let it be known that ‘There are no new instructions for priests’ [See,25017,nie-ma-nowej-instrukcji-watykanu-ws-pedifilii.html].  What is also interesting is that while Fr. Żak has pointed to Spotlight as an example of serious journalism and a valuable point of reference in deciding how one should discuss the question of paedophilia in the Church, he has also stated: ‘The Coordinator of the Polish Episcopate for the protection of children and young people underlines that from one sentence taken out of context one cannot conclude that there has been any change in the policy of the Vatican.’ In his opinion, to present the matter in this way is an abuse and rather than repeat unsubstantiated information from the Guardian newspaper, the author of the article ‘should rather have watched Spotlight in order to learn what constitutes reliable journalism.’  This is as much as he would say, because discussion of the concrete actions of the Polish Catholic Church has not been too loud. For the moment, we will have to watch how the situation develops elsewhere. Beyond the ocean, as always. For we love America.

Let us therefore watch Spotlight. The fact that is has received the Oscar for the best film of 2016 restores one’s faith in the power of solid socially engaged journalism and strengthens the hope that its message will reach Pope Francis. Accepting the Oscar, the producer, Michael Sugar, said: ‘This film gave a voice to survivors, and this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.’It is worth mentioning that the Pope himself on the way to Mexico expressed himself unambiguously on the question of covering up paedophilia in the Church. [See: ]. Unfortunately the Polish Church does not seem to hear what Pope Francis is saying.

Translated by Antony Polonsky

This review was first published in the electronic journal Kultura Liberalna. The Polish original can be found at: Those who wish to read texts published by this journal in English should go to: .



[1]On the pages of the Boston Globe, one can find a clear account of the investigation described in the film. See: