Betrayal: Global Story, Local Voices as Netflix Explores Clerical Sex Abuse in Spain
“Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Jesus Christ in Matthew 19-14
An entrepreunial miracle, Netflix started as a web-based movie rental operation delivering DVDs through the mail. Now, just 20 years later, it’s a media giant producing original content distributed wherever viewers are allowed internet access. Netflix is a member of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which was founded nearly a century ago to promote the nascent industry and establish content guidelines.
Among the latest offerings in an exponentially growing catalog, Netflix recently premiered a three-part documentary, Examination of Conscience (2019), which explores clerical sex abuse in the country formerly known as Catholic Spain. This harrowing Spanish-language production opens in pre-Brexit London, where Miguel Hurtado, the viewer’s sometime guide, has moved to establish an adult life away from his demons. Now in his mid-30s, Hurtado had kept silent for 20 years. He’s ready to break that silence. “I was a child. I’m an adult now.” On average, experts say that it takes 21 years for victims to accept their trauma. And acceptance alone doesn’t guarantee either healing or justice.
Throughout the documentary, several participants comment on how the Spanish sex abuse scandal is no different from reports gathered over 30 years in such seemingly different countries as the United States, Australia, India and Ireland: unchecked abuse; unregulated access to minors; transfer, not removal, of accused priests; failure to report crimes to civil authorities; a pervasive lack of accountability; cash payments made, as Hurtado describes, “not to fix the damage but to buy my silence.” (He returned the money.) And, of course, the monumental, decades-long failure of the church to set its house in order.
The experience of victims is also distressingly familiar, the stories of unwarranted shame and guilt, of wholly reasonable fear. Interviewees describe destroyed lives sabotaged by a now dysfunctional sexuality, alcohol and drugs, self-harm and suicide attempts and post-traumatic stress disorder. The viewer can only hope and pray that, by their jaw-dropping courage in breaking the institutional and cultural silence, victims’ testimony will lead to reparation and reform.
For the same viewer, several questions arise, the most urgent of which is: What does it mean to witness this testimony? (The same moral challenge faced by witnesses to the Holocaust.) And to witness it time and again in documentary and dramatic form as, for example, in the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015), reviewed in these pages. Are we the viewers called to action? To do what exactly?
Patrick Carnes, PhD, is the respected author of The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitative Relationships (1977, updated in later editions), a primary source for therapists and clients confronting the emotional effects of the betrayal of trust. Carnes believes that all stories (real or imagined) really have only one plotbetrayal. He posits that the bond survivors establish with their abuser compels them to tolerate the intolerable and, exactly as the interviewees in this Netflix documentary confirm, argues that the precipitating betrayal is a setup for traumatic relationships with self and others across a lifetime.
In Examination of Conscience, viewers again hear stories of boys having attention and seeming affection lavished on them by abusers, so-called men of God now also in loco parentis, a double-whammy power imbalance. In Carnes’ view, this “love” invites an attachment to its illegitimate source, constituting no less than a shattering betrayal and a dynamic so deep as to require tauma-focused and informed healing. Lastly, Carnes argues that this dynamic may include some maladaptation in brain development, such as is also believed to be implicated in substance and behavior addictions. Whatever the value of Carnes’ debated hypothesis, it’s beyond controversy that clerical sex abuse is a very serious sin indeed.
And so the question becomes: What is this religion that remains lethargic in the face of such a sin? What is it good for, if not to offer clear moral leadership and comfort? Viewers are reminded in this documentary that Jesus himself was unambiguous in his condemnation of harming children. Yet the Catholic church has reportedly harbored sexual abusers at least since the Middle Ages, as attested by, for example, the Benedictine saint, Peter Damian.
What’s gong on here?
Examination of Conscience is largely silent on religion, except to remind viewers of its centrality in the lives of all concerned. The documentary focuses instead on educational and administrative institutions. There are also tantalizing references to the political climate of the Franco era (1938–1973) and of the immediate aftermath of the dictator’s death, years when the institutional church is described as having been powerful beyond questioning. Interviewees reference their Catholic upbringing as a matter of cultural assumption, but discussion rarely strays into consideration of dogma or spiritual practice. Perhaps the enormity of courage required for personal testimony in the public square precludes such exploration at this time.
Nonetheless, there’s a vacuum. Clerical sex abuse is not only wrong because of its effects on survivors, it’s offensive in the sight of God and his angels and saints, and for easily articulated theological and religious reasons, a teaching all need to hear.
One of the fascinating chapters in Examination of Conscience engages with an admitted abuser. This priest wants viewers to understand his suffering. It’s likely that he will be unable to offer meaningful empathy to his victims until they have a clear picture of how painful his life has been—a childhood of abuse, the struggle to control his compulsion (his word), the times when he didn’t act out. Viewers hear nothing about how “intrinstically disordered” he might be, or that he’s in denial about how his behavior affects others, nor any request for forgiveness; he just asks for understanding. He’s a victim, too.
To the seasoned ear, this rationalization sounds like nothing so much as addiction. His classic symptoms include distorted thinking, obsessive focus, compulsive behavior without regard to consequences, mixed-success attempts to control the behavior and self-pity. And, yes, a deeply painful life fraught with self-hate and subterfuge.
“Generally, addicts do not perceive themselves as worthwhile persons,” says Carnes, a pioneer in identifying and treating what he calls “sex addiction.” (The condition first appeared in scientific literature nearly 40 years ago.) “They believe that sex . . . is what makes [their] isolation bearable. As in the definition of other addictions, the relationship is with sex [, drugs or alcohol], and not people.” Some in recovery would go so far as to suggest that it’s impossible to have any relationship with people who are active in their addiction; a lonely place indeed.
“For some sex addicts, behavior does not progress beyond compulsive masturbation or the extensive use of pornography or phone or computer sex services,” adds Michael Herkov, PhD. “For others, addiction can involve illegal activities such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, obscene phone calls, child molestation or rape.”
Carnes, author of several influential titles based on his own empirical research among sex addicts, has developed a clinically based treatment model that offers hope for recovery. Other practitioners also offer treatment, and the practice is growing. Twelve-step groups for sex addiction have been popular for decades.
Examination of Conscience suggests that, consistently around the world, seven percent of priests are offenders, and possibly sex addicts. (Estimates of the incidence of sex addiction in the general population vary and are unreliable.) Whatever the figure, it’s surely likely that screening and therapeutic interventions, such as those developed by Carnes and his colleagues, would have a salutary effect within a church plagued by these issues. But first, the institution must examine its conscience.
Wikipedia currently lists 14 countries, not including Spain, with documented clerical sex abuse scandals, all sharing characteristics presented in Examination of Conscience. Attempts by the current pope to address the crisis have been met with a mixed reception, and activists are unconvinced of the efficacy of the Vatican’s so-called zero tolerance policy. “Zero tolerance means the truth cannot be hidden,” says Hurtado, now back in Spain to confront his past and his abusers. “I want the next generations not to have to experience what I did,” he concludes.
Hurtado sees seeking justice and punishment as a moral obligation. His friend tells him, “Another marathon is beginning.”
And so be it.