Narrowly Avoiding the Spotlight


Late on this year’s Oscar Sunday, the award ceremony concluded with the Academy getting something right: Spotlight was awarded Best Picture. Spotlight is well-acted across the board and its story (for which it also won Best Original Screenplay) is tautly edited and matter-of-fact. Uneasy tension slowly mounts amidst extremely sensitive material, which never feels exploitative or meddled with for drama’s sake. Beyond its narrative cohesion, though, Spotlight shines brightest as a beacon for collective memory: a world institution thought to be honorable and safe has allowed widespread harm to fall upon its most vulnerable members.

The tiny text of the film’s epilogue lists every area in America where abusive Catholic priests have been discovered; the long list of places somehow fills the entire screen multiple times. The chances are good that most moviegoers saw his or her own city or town—at the very least one close by—listed in the crawl. Director Tom McCarthy makes the far-reaching scandal a personal matter just before the viewer is released back into the world. As the credits rolled, I sat completely still, tears welling. Sobs came from a man in the far corner of the theater; he had attended the weekday matinee alone, just as I had. Something had been provoked.


Though it’s been fifteen years since the Boston Globe’s journalists exposed the epidemic of child sexual abuse within the Church, Pope Francis has only recently turned the blame inward. What little action the Vatican has taken continues to be bogged down in bureaucratic rhetoric lacking any significant rectification, all while new cases continue surfacing. On Oscar night, Spotlight producer Michael Sugar stood on the Dolby Theater stage in Los Angeles and said winning Best Picture would “amplify the voice of survivors;” at the same time, authorities in Pennsylvania were preparing a 147-page Grand Jury report detailing “hundreds” of uncovered incidents of child rape, molestation, and abuse by over fifty priests stationed throughout the Altoona-Johnstown dioceses—under whose watch I spent my first eighteen years of life. The full report became public two days later.


rustbelt1_Jacob KoestlerBeing raised Catholic in a small Rust Belt town is something that generations of Americans have in common. So too, we now know, are the sinister happenings within the Church that was supposed to foster and protect us. My town of Cresson—a one-stoplight drop of red in the conservative middle of Pennsylvania—lacked diversity in race, religion, and, as a result, point of view. Like many others, my parents believed education reinforced with faith offered a more wholesome philosophy to learning, and sent me to All Saints Catholic from kindergarten through eighth grade, and Bishop Carroll in nearby Ebensburg for high school. This meant that I went to Church Thursday mornings in addition to the regular Sunday Mass with my family, and every day I wore a standard uniform of button-down white shirt with khakis.

My education also included a large dose of intolerance disguised as morality. In fourth grade, the music teacher once reprimanded my friend and I by saying we were “acting like faggots”; in Religion class, a dropped-out seminarian showed us grisly photographs of ravaged fetuses, while we were made to silently stare and pray for the babies that would be killed that day in what he termed “modern genocide.” In one science class we were taught God created earth and humans as we are today in seven twenty-four-hour days; in another, a more enlightened teacher embraced evolutionary creationism, the belief that evolution is real but purposefully set in motion by God. Because the Church refuses to offer an official position on our origins, both viewpoints are considered valid under Catholicism. Early on, I found the contradictions and doublespeak to be problematic, sometimes outwardly hateful. The resulting cognitive dissonance was often overwhelming. If the golden rule was compassion, I thought, then why were so many excluded and shunned from God’s love?


In addition to the daily regiment of dogma indoctrination and personality scrubbing, once a month we were made to go to Holy Confession (also called Penance) or face demerit marks in Conduct. Confession is one of the Church’s sacred ceremonies, known as the Seven Sacraments. Children begin this ritual in second grade at seven years old. In a secluded box in the back of the Church, you reveal to God (who is channeled through the priest—a concept called “in persona Christi”) every bad thing you’ve done or even been tempted to do. Imperative to confess are “mortal sins”, which are said to directly rupture your bond with God, and cause your soul to “die”. The Church does not definitively name all offenses it deems mortal—only concepts—so, depending on the beliefs of whoever is teaching, a wide net of misdeeds can be considered equally grave: lying, cheating on tests, premarital sex, using contraception, masturbation, any drug use, even missing Mass on purpose to watch TV or hang out with friends. If a mortal sin has been committed, God’s forgiveness through the priest was the only thing keeping the soul from eternal damnation.

At the very least, this notion opens a pathway to obedience through overwhelming fear of an eternity in Hell. Each child goes into this private space under the impression that they are meeting not with a man, but actually the manifestation of God on earth, and as Spotlight points out: “Who could say no to God?”


rustbelt3_Jacob KoestlerIn 1997, when I was twelve years old, the priest assigned to my middle school’s parish had a childlike naïveté to him, a detachment to the world at large. It felt like he was always looking through us as he spoke. Sometimes he claimed to see angels on our shoulders, a thought both enchanting and petrifying for a child. To me, even then, the priest’s demeanor didn’t seem to be a conduit to the Divine. Rather, his mannerisms conveyed a dangerous indifference, a championing of bombast above service. Though mostly bald, his remaining hair was grown wildly in a circle (think Friar Tuck), which highlighted his bare pate and gave the impression of a halo. He had other strange habits, as well: a singing voice louder than any I’ve heard before or since; a bone-crushing handshake; and a constant, toothy grin that he wore even when the occasion, such as a funeral, called for sober solemnity. His rambling sermons sometimes lasted an hour. As a result, he was not popular within the parish, but when we complained to teachers—or parents—the town’s tacit acceptance of all Church decisions won out. The only outcry within the community came as grumbling and eye rolling at post-Mass lunches at the local diner.


It was in the secluded confessional where this priest attempted to assault me.


As a seventh grader—already embracing the “no gods, no masters” principle of punk rock—I was about through with organized religion, though the last pangs of fear and guilt over the death of my soul remained. I confessed to him face-to-face—as I was taught was the more honorable way—and sat speaking the list of wrongs I had committed. The priest’s signature smile never faded as he listened and nodded. He interrupted with a question: “Have you, Mike, had premarital sex? Some boys your age have experimented…”

I was taken back at the bluntness, but the entire experience of the Sacrament had always felt entirely strange and filled me with great anxiety, so I wasn’t immediately alarmed. I thought about my answer, which wasn’t instantly clear to me—I had fooled around with girls, but had not yet had sex. I answered no, but my hesitation was unsatisfactory.

The priest pressed: “If you do not tell truth in here, God is unable to forgive.” He paused, and again said my name, “…Mike.”

I shook my head.

“Okay,” he said, still smiling. “What about touching yourself? In a sexual manner?”

rustbelt2_Jacob KoestlerMy cheeks flushed as I told him that I did. I said I was sorry. I started to make the customary act of contrition in the form of a memorized prayer.

He stopped me. “Let’s go back. In… what way… did you touch yourself? You must be exact and whole… in order to receive God’s love.”

I did not answer him, but kept mechanically reciting the words: “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest of all my sins because of your just punishment…”

The priest reached out his hand and placed it high on my thigh while I prayed. This had never happened before, and I felt a rush of adrenaline (intuition for which I will always be thankful). I shot up and out of the confessional and found myself in the quiet Church nave again. Dozens of other children knelt with their eyes closed, waiting for their turn.


On a night soon after seeing Spotlight, I phoned my brother, who is two years younger than me. Though we live on different coasts, he’s my best friend, and I feel profoundly lucky to have him in my life as an emblem for how a good person should be. We were both a little drunk, which made divulging the weighty discovery both a little easier and more acute. He listened to me thoughtfully; he offered consolation, support, and shared my disgust. Then—both of us nearly in tears—he told me his own experience with the same priest. He was ten years old, and had also just finished confessing (it may have been the same day as my run-in) when the priest gave him a command: “Give me a kiss to be forgiven by God.” My brother thankfully didn’t obey, but instead quickly left the confessional in the same fearful and confused manner I had. Similar to me, my brother’s realization of the priest’s offense didn’t come until a decade and a half later, after a chance reunion with a former classmate, who, after some beers, told his own experience, including the same request to kiss the same priest. As my brother spoke, I became bitterly angry, heavy with a sadness that I didn’t have the immediate foresight, after my own experience, to keep him from a similar harm.


Within months of the original events, the priest was suddenly removed from the parish, which caused confusion—his tenure was much shorter than the usual appointment. The given explanation was that he was sick and unfit to serve; soon after, however, he was whisked to another Church in a different county. Because of the Globe’s journalism depicted in Spotlight, we now know these yank-and-shuffle practices as tactics used by Church authorities to suppress the allegations of molestation. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report states that official reasons listed for a priest’s removal such as “sick leave” or “nervous exhaustion” were actually internal codes indicating ties to crimes against children.


The report begins with an epigraph taken from the hundreds of hours of victim testimony: “I only called him ‘Father’.” This individual, like so many others, didn’t escape his own priest’s advances. In Summer 2015, authorities uncovered four “Confidential Litigation” file cabinets containing over 100,000 documents chronicling alleged abuse cases occurring as early as the 1960s. Beyond the abuse itself, the documents proved Altoona-Johnstown diocese Bishops Joseph Adamec and James Hogan buried the incidents and returned offending priests to the ministry. The report provides horrifyingly detailed accounts of crimes that far surpass the attempts against my brother and me, repeat attacks that sometimes lasted for years. Knowing how I’ve been affected, it’s difficult to imagine the burden for survivors who endured much worse. Many of the interviewed victims simply ask for justice, or, at the very least, that the diocese pay for their mental health treatments. Those requests go unanswered and no criminal charges of any kind will be filed as a result of the investigation. Reasons for this include the cases having occurred beyond Pennsylvania’s twelve-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault, the accused priests having since died, or—most tragically—that many of the victims remain, even today, too traumatized to testify.



The priest who assaulted me is not directly named in the Grand Jury’s 147 pages, though, as I read through, I felt dread at the prospect of seeing him included. In a way, it would make my own experience more real, and perhaps harder to surmount. His omission may mean, as twisted as it sounds, that my experience was a signal he wasn’t as skilled at seducing children as many of his peers, that the barrier of his behavior was his social ineptitude. A much more depressing thought is that victims of his still remain in the shadows. Part of the complicated psychology behind staying a silent sufferer of sexual assault is the fact that in stepping forward, one risks irreparably changing the perception of their character, accomplishments, and even trustworthiness within their communities. This is a sad fact that carries complications for any business owner or contributing member of society living in a small town like Cresson. I’ve considered the uneasy looks I may receive when back in town for the holidays, out at a local bar and encountering past acquaintances who are unable to conceal their thoughts.


Because of the Church’s extensive concealment, knowing the exact number and identities of all offending clergy within the 90,000 member diocese will never be possible; many have slipped through the cracks. In the week since the report’s release, an Altoona-Johnstown incident report hotline has received 150 calls from new victims wanting to tell their own stories. Allegations have even surfaced indicating the cooperation of local law enforcement with suppression efforts. This level of systemic conspiracy has created safe haven for priests, perhaps those not included in the official report, yet with a history of lascivious behavior. Take, for instance, another priest from my upbringing; he was in his mid-twenties at the time and appointed as my high school’s chaplain. He frequently used AOL Instant Messenger to contact students and prod into their sex lives. The freshman girls talked about it during lunch. After a classmate had confessed to him that she had performed oral sex, he followed up with her on AIM later that night. He wanted to know if she swallowed the boy’s semen.


Tom McCarthy has said that Spotlight is not an attack on Catholicism as a whole, more an open examination of journalism’s power in facilitating a sea change. Similarly, the Grand Jury’s report is not an indictment of the larger Church, but to reveal individuals who used the guise of religious authority to abuse children. While I think the extent of conspiracy does carry an unspoken insistence of scrutiny over the establishment that permitted these crimes, the point is taken—it is dangerous to condemn the belief system to which a lot of moral people dedicate their lives. I’m aware there are a wealth of good people—including priests—truly invested in continuing their Savior’s principles of pure love and helping those in need. But the fact remains that the institutional framework and banner under which these good people operate has been uncovered as indefensibly aberrant—as well as criminally corrupt. As for how Catholics should reconcile this fact against their beliefs, I couldn’t say. It may not be the obligation of each individual to renounce the Church on account of these findings, however, the “a few bad apples” argument falls far short of Christ’s teachings. As a child, my favorite story from the Bible was when Jesus threw out the corrupt from the Temple: “‘It is written,’ [Jesus] said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’”



It took me nearly twenty years and the power of a fine film to fully realize what happened to me in the confessional was an inappropriate act by an adult against a child. I remember flashes of my time in the Church with clarity: the sweet smell of incense burning in the sacristy as I put on my altar boy robe, an elderly woman hitting the floor—boom, down—when she passed out after receiving the Eucharist. Yet, the entire period of my life has always felt foggy and colored by a directionless anger. Thanks in part to Spotlight, I now know this to be the result of my formative years spent exposed to a negligent network of fear, intolerance, and wrongdoing. The film exists at an intersection rarely traversed—as gripping art and faithful document of a harrowing American conspiracy. Its Best Picture Oscar stands as an expression of support for the thousands of survivors who continue to emerge in small towns like Cresson, Pennsylvania. Our gaze ensuring the protection of innocents must never again go dark.


Image credits: Featured photo provided by author, images 2 and 3 © Jacob Koestler, image 4, image 5.

Michael McDermit is a writer and musician living in Los Angeles, and the Associate Editor of Fogged Clarity, an arts review. He received his MFA from the University of Oregon, and is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective based out of his flood-famous hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He currently teaches writing to underserved college students in South LA. Follow him on Twitter at @mtmcdermit. More from this author →