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The Moral Entropy of Institutions


It is a mistake to equate an institution with its mission. Pharma companies seek to provide us with healing and curing drugs but some have put profit above people and were penalized with multibillion dollar payouts. Car companies are about delivering us transportation but two recent examples revealed how they put corporate self-interest above safety and environmental standards. Financial institutions are meant to enable citizens to achieve the American dream not to devise dubious derivatives that have left countless homeless and triggered a global recession.

And there is the Catholic Church, the religious home to well over a billion people worldwide and one of the most enduring of institutions. It is also one of the wealthiest organizations on earth: Landholdings alone are of inestimable value and its grip on the hearts, minds and souls of its congregants is priceless. So, when the Church goes astray it is newsworthy.

In 2001, shortly before the World Trade Center bombings, a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at The Boston Globe, which itself had been acquired by the New York Times. His mission is to make the paper more of value to its readers, and in so doing keep it alive as newspapers were rapidly being eclipsed by on-line communications. An outsider and a Jew in a community of Catholics (over half the paper's readers were Catholic and Boston was like one big parish) he discovered a story going nowhere, despite being in the hands of the Globe's crack, investigative Spotlight team; he challenged them to take it on. The headline was widespread sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston Archdiocese - but that remained to be proven. The rest, we might say, was exposé.

Spotlight, nominated for Academy awards for best picture, director, and supporting actor and actress, is a meticulous and riveting rendering of the workings of investigative reporting, undaunted journalism, and the courage of victims, their families and a few hearty advocates who stayed the course over decades of dismissal and combat. Tom McCarthy, who directed the film and also co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, at 43 has notched a diverse set of achievements including: prominent acting roles in The Wire, Flags of Our Fathers, and Pixels; with writing credits that include Up, Million Dollar Arm, and The Visitor; and also directed The Visitor and The Station Agent. He went to Boston College and knows the scene for Spotlight in more ways than one.

A terrific ensemble of actors delivers Mr. McCarthy's script and directing full speed ahead. In addition to Liev Schreiber, we have Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams (while Mr. Ruffalo has first billing in the film he was nominated as a supporting actor) as members of the Globe's Spotlight team and Stanley Tucci, recognizable only from his unbounded energy, as a victims' attorney who has no time for anything but justice.

The film includes The Globe, not just the Church, in its moral crosshairs. No institution is immune to entropy, the universal and natural force pulling everything down to a lower level of energy. The abuse story sat dormant at their paper for over 15 years, having been buried in the Metro section by Robby (Walter) Robinson (Mr. Keaton) when he was new to the job and before he headed up their Spotlight Team. In a scene rich with message and meaning, as if a rabbi, the new editor, Marty Baron, tells us all that none of us are free of guilt, we are all responsible for the behavior of our institutions, and urges a future that makes up for lost time.

Faith is a delicate matter, be it in our religious, media, medical, governmental or business institutions. But when the power of a role, of a priest (or doctor or family member), is used for exploitation and abuse, it wreaks havoc with our fundamental need and capacity for trust. When that happens the life trajectory of the victim, if not fatal, can become rife with psychic pain and dysfunction. Yet history alerts us that institutional mission is continuously subject to erosion under the commanding forces of self-preservation, competition and greed.

It may not take a village but one strong curb against the moral entropy of institutions is for them to consciously invite outsiders who find insiders who have not lost sight of their mission. The outsider may be the 4th Estate (publishing) or today, increasingly, victims' rights organizations. Sometimes the outsider is government, when it is responsibly and prudently protecting the interests of its citizens. Sometimes it is the new guy or gal, the outsider to the tribe. The insider makes possible the outsider's campaign because of what he or she knows and can do. Sometimes the insider has been locked away, as was the Globe writer, Mike Rezendes, awaiting his time. Sometimes the insider is Counsel to the perpetrators, sworn to defend but gnawing on the inside, or members of the priesthood, as were some of the Archdiocese attorneys and priests. Outsiders and insiders need each other. Together they can reverse entropy and restore faith, mission and hope.

249 priests were implicated in the Boston Archdiocese scandal, and injured at least 1000 victims. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned his post and he has been in luxurious exile under the wing of the Vatican in Rome. Worldwide exposure of sexual abuse by priests ensued and has no doubt spared countless youth and other victims. Pope Francis has made sexual abuse and the honorable conduct of the Church a vocal part of his moral ministry. The Globe wrote over 600 articles on this story, thereby honoring the virtue of truth-telling that is a beacon for us all. This is a story to behold.

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The opinions expressed here are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.

Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

This article first appeared on Huffington Post on January 18, 2016.

Dr. Lloyd’s two new books are now available: Improving Mental Health: Four Secrets in Plain Sight (2016) and Current Controversies in Mental Health and Addictions: An Expert’s Anthology (2017)


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