After Spotlight won “Best Picture” last month at the annual Academy Awards, Catholic voices rained down hosannas upon the film, which celebrated The Boston Globe’s coverage of the sexual-abuse scandal in Boston in 2001 and 2002.
L’Osservatore Romano rushed into print to clarify that the film was not anti-Catholic, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston saluted the work of the Globe, and the estimable Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review was grateful: “Thank God for The Boston Globe!”
That view is so widely shared today that it could be considered the party line. And I agree with it — the Catholic Church is better for having the scandalous behavior exposed. Children are safer, victims have experienced a greater measure of healing, the Church is less corrupt, and it has led to what St. John Paul II hoped for back in the spring of 2002 — a “holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier Church.”
But the Oscar for Spotlight, the decision by the Royal Commission on sexual abuse in Australia to make Cardinal George Pell — one of the earliest reformers on sexual abuse — into a scapegoat and the grand-jury report in Altoona-Johnstown, Pa., do pose again the question: Why does the Catholic Church seem to get disproportionate attention — even if that attention can be salutary?
The first response might be a theological one. The Church as the body of Christ does what Christ did for the world, namely to offer an expiatory suffering. The scourge of sexual abuse touches every part of society, but mostly remains hidden. The very public exposure of the Church might well serve the broader need for justice and repentance, for the Church herself and for society as a whole.
A second response would be ecclesiological. The Church has to be held to a higher standard because her mission of salvation is of a higher order. If she is the body of Christ, then the sins of her members are all the more outrageous and deserve to be denounced as such.
A third response would be spiritual. The Church can cope with the scandal of sexual abuse because she has the resources — the grace of Divine Mercy — required. Sexual abuse often remains hidden because to bring it to the light would utterly destroy everyone touched by it, with no prospect of recovery. Only where there is the possibility of justice and reconciliation is it wise to confront the wickedness wrought by evil.
A fourth response would be that Christ loves his Church and gives to her what she needs. The details that have emerged from Altoona-Johnstown or Ballarat, Australia, are horrific. Even though the details are often from decades ago, they are still quite recent, and if priests and bishops could act so badly, perhaps only the white-hot heat of scandal can effect the necessary change.
Still, if that might explain God’s purposes, the question can be asked about the journalists’ motivations: Did anti-Catholic animus drive much of the coverage of the priestly sexual-abuse scandal?
Yes, there was anti-Catholic animus. There are numerous examples of how sexual crimes against minors in other environments apparently did not merit similar coverage. Every so often, an American state contemplates lifting the statute of limitations so that victims can bring otherwise stale-dated claims for civil damages against the Catholic Church. Whenever it is proposed that the same should apply to public schools, it goes nowhere. It is a gross double standard that illustrates that the welfare of children is often not the priority.
But it is not all anti-Catholicism that explains the double standard. There are other factors that made it easier for journalists to expose Catholic malfeasance. Investigative journalism is expensive and demanding, but it is less expensive and less demanding to go after the Catholic Church. It already keeps the information the reporter is looking for.
Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Seattle disclosed the names of all those priests accused of sexual abuse dating back decades, including those long deceased. The Altoona-Johnstown grand jury relied on documents from the diocese itself. Records are kept and can be rather easily accessed, if the willingness is there — or if they cannot be unsealed by court order or leaked. The Spotlight team worked for several months, but using publicly available directories and court filings made in civil suits. If you wanted instead to know how many Protestant pastors had been accused of sexual abuse in Seattle or Boston in the last 70 years, it might be a research project that would consume years of labor, not the six months the Spotlight team gave to it. What newspaper — or personal injury-lawyer — is going to undertake that?
Over time, the prevalence of other sexual-abuse scandals, albeit underreported, and the massive changes made in the Catholic Church are changing how this story is being told. Not long before the Oscars, there was a scathing cover story in Newsweek exposing the deep prosecutorial and judicial corruption at the heart of the landmark Philadelphia prosecution of Msgr. William Lynn, not himself guilty of sexual abuse, but convicted and jailed for “child endangerment” because he allegedly failed to stop other priests who did.
The case is the typical prosecutorial tyranny regularly served up by the American criminal-justice system, so that is no surprise. But that Newsweek would devote a cover story (“Catholic Guilt? The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy Behind a Lurid Rape Case”) to exposing as fraudulent a conviction much hailed by victims and prosecutors alike is noteworthy.
Perhaps we are coming to more balance in where we focus our journalistic spotlight.
He has been appointed to serve as a jubilee year missionary of mercy by the Holy See.