She put out cookies

Frank Bruni talks about how hard it’s been to make religion as accountable as other human institutions.

James Porter was convicted of sexually abusing 28 children in the 1960s, when he was in the Catholic priesthood. He was believed to have abused about 100 boys and girls in all, most of them in Massachusetts.

Major newspapers and television networks covered the Porter story, noting a growing number of cases of abuse by priests. Porter’s sentencing in December 1993 was preceded by two books that traced the staggering dimensions of such behavior. The first was “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” by Jason Berry. The second was “A Gospel of Shame,” with which I’m even more familiar. I’m one of its two authors.

But despite all of that attention, Americans kept being shocked whenever a fresh tally of abusive priests was done or new predators were exposed. They clung to disbelief.

“Spotlight” is admirably blunt on this point, suggesting that the Globe staff — which, in the end, did the definitive reporting on church leaders’ complicity in the abuse — long ignored an epidemic right before their eyes.

Why? For some of the same reasons that others did. Many journalists, parents, police officers and lawyers didn’t want to think ill of men of the cloth, or they weren’t eager to get on the bad side of the church, with its fearsome authority and supposed pipeline to God. (After the coverage of the Porter case, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston announced, “We call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.”)

Deference to religion is built in in most places. It’s ingrained, it’s automatic and thus unconscious. You just don’t mess with religion; priests are good by definition; oh look a squirrel.

“Spotlight” lays out the many ways in which deference to religion protected abusers and their abettors. At one point in the movie, a man who was molested as a boy tells a Globe reporter about a visit his mother got from the bishop, who was asking her not to press charges.

“What did your mother do?” the reporter asks.

“She put out freakin’ cookies,” the man says.

When the cookies finally went away, many Catholic leaders insisted that the church was being persecuted, and the crimes of priests exaggerated, by spiteful secularists.

But if anything, the church had been coddled, benefiting from the American way of giving religion a free pass and excusing religious institutions not just from taxes but from rules that apply to other organizations.

A 2006 series in The Times, “In God’s Name,” noted that since 1989, “more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use.” That was before the Supreme Court, in its Hobby Lobby decision, allowed some employers to claim religion as grounds to disobey certain heath insurance mandates.

Religion is the boss of us, and don’t you forget it.

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