My take on the movie Spotlight. Why the evangelical Christian church needs to see it and the lessons the church can glean from the movie. The chief lesson I believe is the following…you cannot conceal or hide illicit activity as it always comes to the surface eventually. My belief and my call that CJ Mahaney needs to be held accountable for all alleged child sex abuse cover up in the SGM/SGC denomination.
“Children are our most valuable resource.”
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 19:14 NIV
I was traveling this past weekend. One of the things I most enjoy about journaling here is the people I have had the privilege to meet. Each and every one is a blessing and I don’t take their interaction or fellowship for granted. On Saturday night I was in Red Bank, New Jersey having traveled up there for a wedding earlier that day. I want to support someone who I love and care about. In the evening I walked around and explored Red Bank. While there I saw the movie theater and that Spotlight is playing. I decided to go and see it as its on my list of movies to see. I have to tell that the movie is good, but it is dark. Its a very dark movie that should make everyone uncomfortable.
An Overview of Spotlight
If you don’t like a spoiler then maybe its best not to read this part. The Boston Globe gets a new editor Martin “Marty” Baron who came up from the Miami Herald. He noticed the allegations facing defrocked priest John Geoghan and asked if the paper thought about investigating deeper. The spotlight team apparently is one of the older investigative teams in journalism. The team agrees to look into what is known about Geoghan. In the course of time the number of priests rose and went to four and eventually 87. Meanwhile reporters Michael Rezendes and Sascha Pfeiffer pound the pavement and speak to the victims and hear the stories of how the molestations took place. While investigating using church directories, the Spotlight team notices how some priests are being rotated every two to three years from one Catholic parish to another; or position of authority. They discover that a lawyer, Eric MacLeish who has been handling victim’s cases is also part of the cover-up. He has been managing a system where cases are privately settled and complaints bought off with settlement money; while he gets his cut. Eventually Rezendes gets his hands on some of the documents that reveal that the church knew about the scope of the problem. Going back a couple of decades the Catholic church in Boston under Cardinal Law knew of the problem and reshuffled a priest when new allegations surface. If you are interested you can read the initial articles in the Boston Globe here and here. Plus if you want to see the movie cast vs. the original Globe employees you can do that here. One thing you realize at the end of the movie is that even the Globe looked the other way and could have published some of these stories sooner. The Globe team despite their fine work is flawed and made their mistakes as well. The Washington Post did a good review which you can read here.
An Uncomfortable Realization
This scene is one of my favorites in the movie. Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes obtains the smoking gun. He gets the internal documentation within the Catholic church which show that Law knew about the situation. Baron wanted them to go after the system, not after Law. Rezendes is angry, he’s angry that the Catholic church knew and did nothing. He wants to publish the story to let people knew that Law knew about one pedophile priest. Roby tells him they are not ready to publish they need to document the information on the other abusive Catholic priests. Rezendes is angry that the church knew and did nothing, and protected people who should not have been protected. In the movie you learn the reason why he is so angry. Michael Rezendes loved going to church when he was a kid but no longer attends. Yet he hoped he could attend again one day. Yet the uncomfortable nature of the topic, and reading the reports, and hearing the stories is getting to him. The other Boston Globe reporter Sascha Pfeiffer reveals to Rezendes that she has stopped going to church with her mother, who she affectionately calls Nana. Nana attends Mass three times a week. She has a hard time sitting through the Mass and realize all that has taken place, all the corruption, and the cover up. Its hard on her also.
God help us if we ever get comfortable about child sex abuse.
Watching this play out after the movie when I was driving to the motel I was reflecting on something else that was disturbingly similar. When I was in my faith crisis I read a book by the religion reporter, William Lobdell, formerly of the Los Angeles Times called Losing my Religion. One of the things written about in the book is Lobdell talking about how hard the coverage of child sex abuse in the Catholic church was for him to report on. He wrote about ordinary Catholics that shielded or wanted to name the Parish hall after an abusive priest. He spoke about how some Catholics attacked the victims instead of caring for them. He was stunned by what he heard when he attended victims meetings, and how traumatized people were…even those who dealt with child sex abuse decades ago were stuck. All of this influenced William Lobdell. In a front page article for the Los Angeles Times Lobdell wrote about how he came to the conclusion that God didn’t exist. The corruption from the Catholic church in covering up child sex abuse was one of the issues that influenced him. While the book went into great detail the article in the Times will give you a good feel for the situation:
In early 2002, I was assigned to work on the Catholic sex scandal story as it erupted across the nation. I also continued to attend Sunday Mass and conversion classes on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights.
Father Vincent Gilmore — the young, intellectually sharp priest teaching the class — spoke about the sex scandal and warned us Catholics-to-be not to be poisoned by a relatively few bad clerics. Otherwise, we’d be committing “spiritual suicide.”
As I began my reporting, I kept that in mind. I also thought that the victims — people usually in their 30s, 40s and up — should have just gotten over what had happened to them decades before. To me, many of them were needlessly stuck in the past.
But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term “sexual abuse” is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ’s representative on Earth. That’s not something an 8-year-old’s mind can process; it forever warps a person’s sexuality and spirituality.
Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.
I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.
The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.
I sought solace in another belief: that a church’s heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God’s house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.
On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.
On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn’t belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn’t go through with the rite of conversion.
I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn’t see these institutions drenched in God’s spirit. Shouldn’t religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?
I found an excuse to skip services that Easter. For the next few months, I attended church only sporadically. Then I stopped going altogether.
I would think after seeing Spotlight that William Lobdell would find himself in good company with Boston Globe reporters Sascha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes.
Some Thoughts on the Evangelical Christian Church and Child Sex Abuse
I came to the conclusion in the course of time that child sex abuse as well as how to deal with sexual offenders is a major issue with the evangelical Christian faith. The first time I encountered it was when I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and arrived at Elmbrook Church shortly after a horrific child sex abuse situation. Daniel Varga a youth pastor had sexually abused a large number of teenagers I believe. When the church notified the police he fled, from southeast Wisconsin to West Baraboo where he locked himself up in a motel room and committed suicide. I wrote about that situation in this article here. Then in another church I was involved, I learned I had a Bible study leader who had an affair with someone underage. In the lobby of the church he starts to tell me of the situation and tells me about how he had to undergo a polygraph as part of his probation requirements if I remember correctly. I was stunned. What stunned me was when I learned that he wanted to work with children again and the church took a firm stand against it. I couldn’t believe given his background that he would want to work with children again. To the church’s credit they took an extremely strong stand. That was church number two.
Then in 2009 until 2013 I had a full blown faith crisis. During that times I met an Air Force Officer who is named here as Andrew White who tried to get me involved in a Sovereign Grace church called Redeemer Arlington. When I started to research the SGM denomination I was stunned by all the stories of child sexual abuse hemorrhaging out it. Why would any parent want to take their children there? Isn’t child sex abuse a red flag? Then the lawsuit against SGM kicked off and Andrew professed as to how healthy Redeemer is as a church. I was an agnostic/atheist at the time trying to figure out if I was going to be a Christian again or reluctant agnostic/atheist. I felt sick. I recall reading the legal document that was filed at SGM Survivors and the court documents were so graphic and disturbing. After what I read I paced around in my condo with a feeling of being sick, and deeply uneasy. That night I didn’t get much sleep…like William Lobdell above I couldn’t get the stories out of my head. It was with Sovereign Grace that I had my third brush with the issue of child sex abuse in the church and at the time I was trying to figure out who, and what I am going to be spiritually. The faith crisis was enough hell, I didn’t need more distractions or issues on top of it.
So what happens….after spending half my thirties away from Christianity I get involved in Fairfax Community Church (FCC) which is headed up by Rod Stafford. It took a lot of courage just to step through the door given my history. Then late one night while researching FCC I discover a comment on social media by a concerned parent who used to attend. It was about Eric Nickle, FCC’s Care Director being on the sex offender registry for the Commonwealth of Virginia and how he walked around freely, and how they tried to talk with church leadership but were dismissed. I read that and was baffled and confused. I didn’t want to believe what I read…not after all I had gone through. Over the course of time I found carrying the information to be a heavy burden. I became upset over the deceit by the Senior Pastor Rod Stafford in that this information was hidden from the congregation. Churches like FCC need to be transparent in all their doings, and that is especially true with this situation. FCC is the third church I was involved in that had this problem. To the credit of the previous church the leadership was more engaged over that sex offender than FCC was. At FCC Eric Nickle was given free reign and walked around freely. When the situation erupted and I watched Rod Stafford and Loretta Cooper in action it was like watching a theological version of Bill Clinton when it came to redefining, misconstruing and misleading. I could tell that Loretta had become a master of spin, by how the situation was handled. FCC’s lack of transparency and deceit over Eric Nickle angered me. I was personally angered that the first church I got involved with after my faith crisis could be so corrupt. I was heartbroken to see the deceit, spin, and outright dishonesty. And the situation reminded me of why evangelical Christianity struggles with child sex abuse and how to deal with sex offenders. That is one of the issues that Rod Stafford taught me. Christians need to remember that pastors like Rod Stafford or Andy Gingrich are sinful, and broken too. Too many elevate their pastor and think of them as being above sin, or being “special.” Rod Stafford is just as screwed up as the person sitting in the pew.
There are a number of points that I need to communicate that need to be stated about child sex abuse.
- Churches, or ministries can not engage in illegal or illicit activity and think they can hide it. The truth comes out always, even in the course of time. Whatever the situation, or illegality…ministry leaders or church leadership are fools if they think it can be hidden long term or kept in silence. This is especially true with the age we live in with the internet. Information that once could be concealed now can be blasted over the net in a matter of mere seconds. Not only that but scripture speaks about how sin cannot be concealed. So why do evangelicals believe that something like child sex abuse can be concealed or covered up?
- Churches or ministries that conceal child sex abuse or hide information from their congregations become theologically incapacitated. Its like having a football player that has a broken leg….your running back can’t play; as the injury has taken him out of the game. In a similar fashion you can’t preach the Gospel and conceal child sex abuse or hide information from the congregation. It undermines that church or ministries authority and capability to teach. It blows my mind that I have to say this, but I guess some need to hear this perspective as well.
- The effects of child sex abuse are devastating. They are not casual, fleeting, or insignificant. They can be deep and long lasting. They can hover over and consume a person in the course of time. They can linger with and stay with a person over the course of their lifetime. Child sex abuse has multiple issues attached to it. It affects a person’s ability to trust another person. It also can hinder and stunt people’s mental health and give birth to mental health issues. Child sex abuse can interfere and prevent fully functioning consenting adults from engaging in sexual activity and being intimate with others, because their sexual ability can be warped. I’ve read a couple of accounts where child sex abuse is referred to as “soul murder.”
- The effects of child sex abuse are not just limited to the person who is abused. It can affect families in that it forces people to choose sides and it can split or cause division. It can also impact marriages with one party feeling guilty or angry over the situation. Has child sex abuse contributed to divorce and separation? In some causes I believe it has. It can also affect friendships or other people close to the situation, in that they have to choose sides meaning their church over their friends in some cases. Lets be honest…a lot of evangelicals want to be entertained that’s why you have a slick dog and pony show in some churches every Sunday. So some will choose what is convenient, but not right as their immediate sense of self gratification is of upmost importance. Finally the effect of child sex abuse can effect faith communities. If you doubt me get involved in a church that is reeling from a case of child sex abuse. I learned this first hand at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee.
I would like to close this section with a video from Diane Langberg which I hope you will watch.
Why CJ Mahaney Needs to be Held Accountable
The evangelical Christian church really needs to see this movie, but one person above all who especially needs to see it is CJ Mahaney. CJ needs to see this for this one simple reason….Spotlight reveals that you cannot hide, bury, or conceal illegal activity. Like I wrote above the truth comes out eventually and always comes to the surface. That’s one of the main reasons why it pays to be truthful from the very beginning. The stories of child sex abuse hemorrhaging from Sovereign Grace are disturbing and horrific. I also have to state the following….I don’t believe they are done, I believe there are a lot more out there that will come out. The scandal and corruption of Sovereign Grace is so deep, and pervasive that I think we’ll be stunned by what eventually comes out. I’d be willing to bet my 401K that there are other stories that we will hear from Sovereign Grace churches in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and elsewhere. It’s just a matter of time before this comes out. People’s anger grows in time and that anger results in them to act.
The other reality is this…I use the word alleged often when I type to cover myself. However, in reality the word alleged was made fact by the conviction of Nate Morales in a Maryland courtroom. The testimony of CJ Mahaney’s brother in law, Grant Layman revealed to the world that the leadership of Covenant Life Church knew and did nothing. They decided not to act on the news of child sex abuse yet, they had no problem being legalistic in other ways or defining modesty. The situation in Sovereign Grace is heinous and horrific. Here is another reason why CJ Mahaney needs to be held accountable for child sex abuse allegation in SGM/SGC. The watching world needs to understand and realize that if you are Cardinal Law, or “Pope” CJ Mahaney that you are not above the law. You cannot be above the law and engage in any form of illegal behavior and get away with it. That really doesn’t just apply to Mahaney, it applies to you, me, and everyone in our society. Romans 13 is very self explanatory and it should be a foundation for all Christians.
The other reason why CJ Mahaney needs to be held accountable is to highlight and send a loud and clear message to individuals like Al Mohler, Kevin DeYoung, D.A. Carson and Mark Dever. They need to realize, admit and repent of their wrong hand in this matter. They need to confess and repent of how they added to spiritual tyranny by neglecting the effects of spiritual malfeasance of CJ Mahaney. Mahaney would not be who they are today had it not been for their barnstorming and support. They are part of problem also and they need to repent. When Mark Dever repents for his callous and reckless behavior and meets personally one on one with the families of the sexually abused in Sovereign Grace and works things out with them, and seeks forgiveness then I will be at peace personally and have more faith in the church. Then I can sleep with more peace. Their time is coming, you can’t avoid inaction on topics like this forever. You can’t run from your problems either.
But CJ Mahaney needs to be held accountable for his actions in Sovereign Grace. You can’t be the grand poobah and want the attention, fame, and celebrity status and not deal with alleged criminal activity in your midst. I believe time will reveal more about what CJ Mahaney knew…CJ is like Cardinal Law.. it’s just a matter of time before this is revealed. Until that day my hope is that the church sides with and supports those victims who bravely told their stories on SGM Survivors and elsewhere. Their is no neutrality when it comes to evil. Either you are supportive or it, or you oppose it. But you can’t sit on the fence, and if you try you have chosen to support evil. If you want to read more you can read about Mahaney in this post here, and how the SGM lawsuit helped me with the problem of evil here. As always I love you guys!