Strange ally: a left-wing journalist's unconvincing critique of Spotlight

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 03, 2016

Joann Wypijewski is a left-wing journalist, who has worked for Mother Jones, The Nation (where she was responsible for the “Carnal Knowledge” column), and CounterPunch. She is not someone you would expect to defend the Catholic hierarchy against critics in the media. Yet she has done exactly that—albeit indirectly—with a blistering denunciation of the Oscar-winning film Spotlight.

“I don’t ‘believe the victims,’” Wypijewski announces in her provocative opening sentence. She goes on to argue that the movie is based on half-truths and outright falsehoods—that the Boston Globe, in its campaign to expose sexual abuse in the Boson archdiocese, relied on flimsy testimony and emotional appeals to create a frenzy, in the best tradition of a New England witch-hunt.

“By their nature, moral panics are hysterical,” Wypijewski rightly reasons, and the Globe stories about predatory priests and despoiled children created a moral panic. There is a great deal of truth in that complaint. If the Globe’s investigative reporters (and their readers) had been as skeptical of the victims’ lawyers as they were of the Catholic bishops, the story might have taken on a very different complexion. As I have argued elsewhere, there is a great deal that the Globe left out of the story—and by the way, the movie unintentionally points toward these deficiencies.

However, in her determination to unmask the pretensions of the Globe, and thus of Spotlight, Wypijewski tilts too far in the opposite direction. Her extreme skepticism about the victims’ stories prevents her from seeing the damning cumulative impact of the dossiers that the Globe reporters compiled.

Sad to say, victims of childhood sexual abuse are not generally good witnesses. They are describing painful events in the distant past; their memories may be hazy and/or exaggerated. Many of them are emotionally unstable and have records of substance abuse and sexual dysfunction. The very experiences they are reporting have helped to render them unreliable as reporters. The victims who have been most successful in coping with the trauma—those who have adjusted, married, and gone on to normal careers—are least likely to want to be involved in lawsuits; they would prefer not to inform their neighbors and colleagues about their past experiences. So it is not difficult to find holes in the testimony, and outrageous behavior on the part of the witness, as Wypijewski does.

Still anyone who plows through the testimony that was assembled by the Globe’s investigative team cannot fail to see a pattern. Were some of the “victims” liars? Probably. Were they coached by their attorneys? Certainly. Did those lawyers feed information selectively to willing reporters, doing their best to try their cases in the headlines? Yes. This was not an ideal example of the American judicial system at work. Nevertheless, there is more than enough evidence of the greater scandal: the willingness of Catholic prelates to ignore the pleas of aggrieved laity. I wept when I first read the letters of Margaret Gallant, an honest Catholic woman whose children had been violated, pleading respectfully for help from the hierarchy—help that she never received. I wept again when portions of Gallant’s letters were read aloud in Spotlight. I cannot say with certainty how many priests were guilty of abuse, but I can say that our bishops failed us horribly.

And what standards should we use to determine whether or not a priest is guilty? Wypijewski, to her credit, takes on one of the toughest possible arguments, asserting that there is no convincing evidence against Paul Shanley, arguably the most notorious of Boston’s convicted ex-priests. His track record was littered with evidence; his conduct was consistently outrageous. But watch how Wypijewski defends him, after noting that he ran a counseling service for a homosexual clientele:

He didn’t always only talk, and some men who saw him were liberated and some were more confused, and some were not able to navigate the difference easily and later found in him a simple explanation for everything that went wrong.

Here, it seems clear, the ideology of the “Carnal Knowledge” columnist is evident. Wypijewski’s sympathies are with those who were “liberated,” definitely not with those who—like the sad character in Spotlight-- were profoundly confused and disoriented by a sexual encounter with Shanley. (Did I mention that she has also defended Woody Allen?) So Wypijewski is indeed a strange ally for someone who wants to defend the Catholic hierarchy.

While I would counsel against placing too much faith in Wypijewski’s analysis, then, I still must credit her with daring to make several salient points.

First, it is reasonable to assume that some “victims” have entered false charges, for the simplest of reasons:

It’s unseemly to mention money. We are asked to believe that the ATM that is the Catholic Church, password VICTIM, could not possibly be an inducement to any of the thousands of accusers who have lined up since the “Spotlight” team’s first breathy reports.

Second, the most prominent representatives of victims—and specifically, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)—are quite willing to accept the likelihood of false accusations. As Wypijewski puts it, the film Spotlight “elides SNAP's belief that wrongful prosecutions are a minor price to pay in pursuit of its larger mission..."

Third, the story line of Spotlight-- the tale of underdog reporters taking on the all-powerful Catholic archdiocese—is entirely mythical. This was, rather, a case in which the most powerful cultural force in Boston, the Globe, seized an opportunity to attack another institution that had once been its rival for public influence. Wypijewski recognizes that the Globe saw a chance “to replace one deference with another, one authority for another.” Yet even that is an understatement, because by 2002, deference to the Catholic Church was passé in Boston. Again I tried to make the point elsewhere: “This was not a case of David vs. Goliath; or if it was, Goliath won.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 04, 2016 4:44 PM ET USA

    The hard left of sexual liberation feels that children have a right to sex with adults that they "love." We caught a glimpse of this here in the US back in 1998 when the APA with author published a paper on the benefits of adult/child sex. Or Dan Savage talking about his seduction of a 30yo man when he was a mere youth. Obsession has a way of projecting one's own deviance onto others, and rationalizing away the harm. Wypijewski takes particular delight when this right involves a priest.