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Jim McDermottOctober 11, 2017

Five things Hollywood could learn from the Catholic Church after Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Oscar awards ceremony in Los Angeles on March 2, 2014. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Living in Los Angeles and watching the cascade of horror that is the unraveling story of Hollywood uber-exec Harvey Weinstein and his abuses of women, I have had a strange sense of déjà vu. I was a seminarian studying for the priesthood in Boston in January 2002 when The Boston Globe began publishing its astonishing series of articles on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Those reports began a lot like the Weinstein story, with allegations surrounding one man, John Geoghan, who had been committing horrific acts of abuse for decades throughout the Archdiocese of Boston.

I suspect the Weinstein story is just the beginning of a much larger set of revelations about abuse and power in the entertainment industry.

I suspect the Weinstein story, too, is just the beginning of a much larger set of revelations about abuse and power in the entertainment industry. And 15 years into the Catholic crisis, having witnessed the choices the institutional church has made (some of them disastrous), I suspect there are things that Hollywood could learn from that experience right now. Here are five that come immediately to mind.

1. It’s all going to come out.

It’s just Harvey Weinstein—one horrible, sick person.

Except it isn’t. Just last week Andy Signore from Honest Trailers was fired for some of the same things. Two weeks ago it was Harry Knowles, forced to take a leave of absence from the blog he founded, “Ain’t It Cool News.” Last year it was Devin Faraci, deposed as editor-in-chief of the website “Birth. Movies. Death.”

And those guys are minor figures in the entertainment industry. Rumors of sexual misconduct have surfaced of late about perhaps the most popular white comedian on the planet right now. And let’s not even start with the well-trod tales of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski.

The studios, the networks, the talent agencies, production companies, TV shows, celebrities...come on. It was never just Father John Geoghan or Father Marcial Maciel Degollado or Gerald Ridsdale. And it is not just Mr. Weinstein.

Want to learn from the church, Hollywood? Don’t wait for the press to dig up the stories.

As it should have a long time ago, it is all going to come out. It does not matter how deep it has been buried or how afraid the victims or others may still be right now. The press chases the story, and people will start to realize they, too, can be released from a piece of their own private hell.

It took years for the Catholic Church in the United States to stop trying to hide the facts. Even now, some insist it is still guilty of that. And the effects have been catastrophic. Look at our empty pews and our battered flocks.

Want to learn from the church, Hollywood? Don’t wait for the press to dig up the stories. They will find them. You know where the problems are. Act now.

You made “Spotlight.” Shoot, you gave it the Academy Award. It is all in there.

2. There is an even bigger issue you have to face, and it is everyone else.

As each new accusation of child abuse has broken in the Catholic Church over the last 15 years, the first wave of horror has been in the sickening tales of brutality, the unthinkable trauma which these children suffered.

But that reaction was quickly followed by the necessary next question: Who else was involved? Who else knew?

There is no Harvey Weinstein without a culture that not only allows for but enables a Harvey Weinstein: the fellow executives and subordinates who turned a blind eye or even aided him in the astonishing things he was doing to women and the movie stars who did the same. The press, too, shares some responsibility for allowing these crimes to continue. Indeed, as with the church stories, we are already hearing that the very organization which broke the Harvey Weinstein story, The New York Times, may have buried a similar report 13 years ago, allegedly at the behest of Hollywood figures including the actors Matt Damon and Russell Crowe.

There is no Harvey Weinstein without a culture that not only allows for but enables a Harvey Weinstein.

In the long run, the refusal of Catholic bishops, religious superiors and others to take full responsibility for the ways they covered up or at times aided abuse has hurt the church as much as the abuse did. That should be impossible, given the crimes we are dealing with. But people can understand that there are people who are sick or evil in the world. They cannot understand leaders who keep their jobs after allowing sick or evil acts to continue.

Every studio and network would be wise to announce an immediate review of its entire operation, past and present. The rot is in the vine, and it will only take a couple other revelations for everyone to realize it.

3. When cultural expectations change, they change overnight and with no tolerance for the allowances of the past.

In his letter of apology, alongside referencing Jay-Z lyrics that do not exist and claiming he is going to use this moment to take the fight to the National Rifle Association, Mr. Weinstein explained, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

As ridiculous as that statement is—has he been living in a hermetically sealed time capsule for the last 40 years?—to Catholics it is also incredibly familiar. How many times have we been told, “We understood these things and how to deal with them differently then”?

The fact is, some of that is true. Moving clergy, allowing them to continue their work, was not just about covering things up; it was at times the proposed course of treatment. Catholic bishops dealing with abusers in the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, were woefully inadequate in their understanding of pedophilia and its effects on victims and so were the medical professionals who were often advising them.

How many times have Catholics been told, “We understood these things and how to deal with them differently then”?

And, yes, there was an era in which Mr. Weinstein’s gross behavior was tolerated as part of the business and the broader culture. Though some the era of the industry’s “casting couches” has ended, perhaps those attitudes were such a part of the fabric of things that versions of those behaviors have continued to be permitted. Consider the 2005 comments of a reality TV star-cum-presidential-candidate, revealed one year ago: “When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Or again, consider the case of Woody Allen, who married one adopted daughter and has been accused repeatedly of sexually assaulting another. Yesterday the actress Kate Winslet, who won an Oscar in 2009 for a film produced by the Weinstein Company, spoke out against Mr. Weinstein. “I had hoped that these kind of stories were just made up rumors,” she said. “Maybe we have all been naïve.”

Her next movie? “Wonder Wheel,” written and directed by Woody Allen.

If the experience of the Catholic Church is any indication, the days in which acts of harassment and abuse are just “boys being boys” or cases of “he said/she said” in Hollywood are well and truly over. Any attempt to give rape and assault “some historical context” will be understood as denial of responsibility and an act of further violence. Anyone who continues to work with these people will find themselves painted with the same brush.

4. Changing the rules is not the same as changing the culture.

I was ordained a priest just one year after the abuse crisis was uncovered, having been a Jesuit already for 11 years. The entirety of my priesthood has been spent watching new procedures get put into place.

Many of those policies, especially as they protect children and other vulnerable groups, have been both necessary and enormously important. So, too, have been the ongoing seminars that have asked clergy and other church officials to consider the implications of their own status, the power they exert in any situation, whether they know it or not.

But I have also seen these new safeguards and procedures being offered as the final and full resolution of the problem: We are protecting children now. Issue resolved.

This is a highly legalistic definition of “resolved,” and it ignores the bigger, essential question: What is it about our culture that needs to change? How do we disrupt once and for all the culture of secrecy of the U.S. Catholic Church, indeed of the entire global church as it continues to address this problem? What have we learned not just about our past but about our future? I have yet to hear a single religious leader at any level attempt to address those questions or even ask them. I continue to find myself bumping up against elements of a culture of secrecy in the church.

There are many safeguards already in place in the entertainment industry. In the weeks and months to come, far more will be considered and implemented. And many of them will be valuable additions to workplace standards. But if that is as far as it goes, it is like burying the radioactive waste and hoping it will just go away.

5. Reap the whirlwind.

An organization facing a crisis of the magnitude facing the Weinstein Company tries to put it to rest as quickly as it can. “Moving on” is the mantra.

Many Catholic leaders over the last decade have gotten to the point where they, too, have asked people to move on. The policies have been changed; the cases have been adjudicated. What more do you want?

When the press and the people do not go along, these leaders have called the objectors anti-Catholic and even cast themselves as victims.

When you are dealing with decades of repressing the truth about acts of violence and a culture that has forced so many to live in fear and denial, resolution does not come via a policy change or an apology. It does not come quickly. And those organizations that were responsible for the crimes certainly do not get to dictate the terms of how and when a crisis ends.

When you are dealing with decades of fear and denial, resolution does not come via a policy change or an apology.

“You reap you what you sow” is not just a threat. It is a fact. You are facing your own harvest now, Hollywood. You can try to rush through it as fast as your lawyers and public-relations flacks can work the problem, cast women and others who come forward later as liars (Geraldo Rivera has already sounded that trumpet) and watch how much more damage that causes.

Or you can try to listen to those within your industry who are willing to speak the truth to you. Listen, learn and try to change.

As a priest, I highly recommend the latter.

Let me tell you, the former works not at all. And it hurts a lot more people.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joan Sheridan
6 years 9 months ago

I am sorry that Fr.McDermott did not mention Bishop John D'Arcy and his efforts to protect children. Only an auxillary Bishop at the time he successfully kept Fr. Geogan out of his region. If you read his letter to Cardinal you will see his only worry was the victims

John Walton
6 years 9 months ago

#6 "When it rains, it pours..." with all apologies to the Diamond Crystal Salt Company.
Weinstein needs prayers.

Luis Gutierrez
6 years 9 months ago

In her sacramental life, the Church has similar lessons to learn from her own experience:

1. It is coming out that the Church has obscured the divine feminine in the liturgy for 20 centuries
2. Everyone knows that the Church has mistakenly taken for granted that patriarchy is divine law
3. The male-only priesthood is a practice inherited from the patriarchal priesthood of the Old Law
4. To forbid discussion about the priestly ordination of women does not make the issue go away
5. Let's face it, the sacramental priesthood of the New Law is not contingent on masculinity

The Church should listen to the signs of the times. Static waiting is harming the body of Christ.

Andrew Eppink
6 years 9 months ago

“I suspect the Weinstein story is just the beginning of a much larger set of revelations about abuse and power in the entertainment industry.”

No kidding.

Richard A
6 years 9 months ago

I think it more likely that the priest abusers thought they could learn some lessons from Hollywood about how to get away with it.

The Hollywood studio casting couch was well enough known about in the 50s. Shirley Temple's mom always stayed on set with her daughter because she knew the dangers in the 30s. America, or at least American newsmakers, love sex and love Hollywood. They don't love the Catholic Church. That's the difference. Harvey Weinstein won't get away with it, whatever that may mean, but there are plenty others and they will continue to get away with it for years.

rose-ellen caminer
6 years 9 months ago

I feel sorry for him.Yes he was a product of the 60's and 70's and the culture changed and he knows this. That applies to women too. The culture changed for them.[us] Sexual harassment is a crime. The stigma is not on the woman, if she is being harassed. There is legal criminal recourse to being sexually harassed or assaulted or raped. And no stigma. Because the culture has changed. So if women are signing non disclosure agreements and taking his money, then they are part of the problem they now say they want to stop. It takes two to tango and when they take his money and do not press criminal charges, but now are all aghast at how reprehensible he is, then they are complicit in the so called scandal.

Dimitri Cavalli
6 years 9 months ago

Anyone wonder where the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was when all this was going on?

Dimitri Cavalli
6 years 9 months ago

Anyone wonder where the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was when all this was going on?

Mike McDermott
6 years 9 months ago

One thing that makes our Church different from other organizations is the mandated privacy of the confessional. Priests have to confess to other priests, and that situation presents an ideal opportunity for an errant priest to put other priests or his bishop in an impossible and compromised position.

An abusive priest could confess his sins to his supervising priests and bishop and de facto pull them unwillingly into the "conspiracy of silence".

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