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With a Focus on the Role of Various Institutions
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SUGGESTIONS FOR USING SPOTLIGHT IN THE CLASSROOM
Introduction to the Movie and Closing: Before showing the movie, tell the class that the film is extremely faithful to what actually happened. Every major factual point made by the movie and most of the minor ones, as well, are based upon the historical record and interviews with participants in the events.
After showing the movie provide the following information to the class:
Sexual abuse of children is a problem in society at large. Most perpetrators have nothing to do with the Catholic Church. In the U.S., one in four girls and one in six boys will be victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18. (This is based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.) In a 30 student class with as many boys as girls, that's seven or eight girls and five boys who will be victims of sexual abuse.TWM recommends that teachers read the following passages to the class or in the alternative, print the following two paragraphs to distribute to students. These statements were made by Sacha Pfeiffer, a Spotlight team reporter, and Josh Stone, one of the scriptwriters. They provide a new perspective on the scandal. Ms. Pfeiffer and Mr. Stone were speaking at a 2015 conference of journalists held at the time the movie was released.
Sacha Pfeiffer: "After our stories ran, we did get occasional calls from people who would say, 'What is in the water in Boston? What is wrong with your priests?' and those are people who were not getting [the point] that this is a system problem and we now know from other reporting done around the world that when you can get into the file cabinets of your local diocese, often-times you will find this."
After watching the film, engage the class in a discussion using the following prompts.
1. Every action which involves other people has an ethical dimension. Those who are affected by the action are called stakeholders. Who are the stakeholders in a decision by a religious leader, such as a bishop, to cover up the fact that a priest working under his supervision has sexually abused a parishioner? For each stakeholder, describe how they were affected by the decision. Suggested Response: This list is not exclusive. Students might have additional ideas. The stakeholders and their interests include: (1) future victims of sexual abuse by the priest; their interest is in: (a) having a normal childhood undistorted by being the victim of sexual abuse; (b) experiencing a sexuality that is normal for them; and (c) not having to go through years of therapy; (2) the current victims; in addition to all the interests described in item #1, the victims have an interest in justice, including compensation for their injuries; (3) the family members of the current and future victims whose interests include having children in the family be safe from sexual predators and not having to go through years of family therapy; (4) the community of the churches attended by the future victims, the victims, and their families; the interests of the community includes the need to protect its members from injury; and (5) the public order and the rule of law; sexual abuse of children is against the law.
2. [Note to Teachers: The following class discussion exercise relates to the same concepts as the first question on the Film Study Worksheet for this movie. Both cover a key point in the lessons to be derived from the film, and the concepts bear repetition. This exercise will also help students respond to the first suggested assignment below. Teachers should decide how to coordinate these three parts of the lesson to best suit the needs of their classes.
TWM recommends that teachers ask the following question several times, addressing it to different students in turn, until most of the relevant information is brought out. After a group or institution is named and its role in the cover-up or the aftermath is described, ask students to discuss the possible motives of the people in the group or the leaders of the institution.]
Describe the role that an institution or group of people played in the sexual abuse cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston and how that role changed after the Globe Spotlight series came out.Suggested Response: This is TWM's take, based on our research which has not been exhaustive. It is submitted for the purpose of providing teachers with a basis for discussion.
As to motivation, there is no one correct response. The decision by each person was based on a mixture of motives, and some of the reasons would not apply to some of the actors. The reasons for doing nothing included: (1) they were acting on suspicion only and did not have hard proof; (2) as Josh Stone, the Scriptwriter said, "there were a lot of people looking the other way because [they thought] the Church is a 'good' institution and why would you take down the Church?"; (3) feeling powerless against the Church, particularly in Boston, a city in which the Church was immensely powerful; (4) the normalcy bias; (5) motivated blindness; and (6) simple self-interest in not wanting to get the Church angry at them, such as the family that delayed reporting abuse of two younger children because an older child had a scholarship to a Catholic high school and they were afraid to put that in jeopardy).These people were clearly a difficult position. First, they were operating on suspicion, and if they were wrong, they would have done a lot of damage to the reputation of an innocent person. Second, there could be retaliation against them or their children.
3. What is the role of a priest in the Catholic Church and how does that role affect your evaluation of the abusers and the men who planned and executed the cover-up? Suggested Response: In the Catholic church, a priest has
". . . the function of guiding the community as shepherd. . . [T]he proper function of the parish priest, stems from his unique relation to Christ the Head and Shepherd. It is a function having a sacramental character. It is not entrusted to the priest by the community, but, through the Bishop, it comes to him from the Lord." ( The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community from the Catholic Church, Congregation of the Clergy, Approved by Pope John Paul II, 8/4/2002.)The actions of the abusive priests and the Church officials who covered up their wrongdoing and moved the abusive priests from assignment to assignment had an additional level of betrayal beyond the many betrayals involved in sexual abuse by a layperson. This is because, in addition to all of the other betrayals involved in childhood sexual abuse, the betrayals by the priests and Church officials were a grave spiritual betrayal.
4. The Spotlight reporters found that Church officials treated sexual predators as "sinners" and "forgave" them their sins. What is wrong with this attitude? Suggested Response: Forgiveness requires true repentance. There are no solid figures about how many sexual abusers of children are repeat offenders, however it is a substantial number. After a second offense, forgiveness turns to tolerance. Church officials are intelligent men. You have to then look at their own reasons for tolerating the illegal behavior. This leads to the considerations described in the suggested response to Discussion Question #2 above.
5. What do you make of the fact that it was a Jewish editor recently hired from a Miami newspaper who assigned the Spotlight reporters to work on the story and to require that the reporters focus on the question of whether there were institutional problems that were leading to the repeated instances of clergy sexual abuse? Suggested Response: It goes to show that sometimes someone from the outside has to come in to provide perspective and to raise alarm bells about matters to which the others have become accustomed. It also has to do with the high quality of Mr. Baron's journalism. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is Jewish.
6. Why is this scandal more about a "cover-up" than it is about clergy sexual abuse? Suggested Response: There is no evidence that clergy engage in more sexual abuse than the general population. However, the cover-up was a dishonest and callous action by powerful and respected bishops who had a responsibility to protect the children and families who attended Catholic churches. They failed in that responsibility choosing instead to protect the Church and the sexual predators.
See six additional Discussion Questions in the supplemental materials for this Guide. In addition, questions 2 - 9 in the Film Study Worksheet for Spotlight can serve as discussion prompts.
Any of the discussion questions or questions 2 - 9 on the Film Study Worksheet for Spotlight can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Write an essay describing the various roles that several types of institutions or groups played in the sexual abuse cover-up scandal of the Roman Catholic Church and its aftermath. These include: religious institutions (in this case the Catholic Church); the Press; the civil justice system; the criminal justice system; advocacy organizations; and the Catholics who sent their children to the churches and schools at which the predatory priests worked. Describe the roles these institutions or groups played: (1) while the cover-up was in place before the Spotlight series was published and (2) after publication of the first article in the series. Develop and state a theory about what motivated the people in these institutions or groups to act in the ways that they did. Justify your theory with facts and sound reasoning. [Note to Teachers: This assignment is similar to question #1 on the Film Study Worksheet for this movie and Discussion Question #2, above.]
2. Generally a good way to discover someone's true intentions, is to look at what they have done and what they are actually doing rather than relying on what they say they are doing or will do. The Catholic Church has apologized many times for the actions of some of its priests, it has paid billons in damages, and it has instituted some reforms. However, activists for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) question whether the reforms go far enough. Research the historical record using the Internet and write an essay taking a position one way or the other on this issue.
3. Research the history of the Catholic Church's childhood sexual abuse cover-up scandal in [Name of archdiocese in which students live or in a particular country].
4. Research the record of Protestant [Jewish, Greek Orthodox, or some other religious denomination] religious organizations in their treatment of sexually abusive priests.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
However, old habits die hard and even after publication of the Spotlight series in 2002, in some instances, as late as 2010 Franciscan monks in Pennsylvania still failed to report a child abuser to the police allowing him to continue to molest children for years. See, the case of Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker.
Movies on Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Literature/U.S.; Good Will Hunting Precious.
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and is scheduled to be published on April 12, 2016.
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