Oscar-winning “Spotlight” Producer Tells Pope to “Protect the Children”

At the Oscars last night, “Spotlight”, the critically-acclaimed film about the Boston Globe's investigation of clergy sexual abuse of children, won Best Picture

 “This film gave a voice to survivors and this Oscar amplifies that voice which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican,” said producer Michael Sugar, who accepted the award with his co-producers. “Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

That message will resonate with Catholics across the nation. They have been deeply shocked by the cascading series of revelations regarding the problem of clergy sexual abuse and administrative cover-ups that surfaced in the wake of the Globe's exposé.

I have covered this issue extensively and am still shaken by Church leaders' past failures to effectively confront the problem. I know men who hid the trauma of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest for most of their lives, and acknowledged the truth only when their marriages began to break down.  

But I was stunned, and even a little shocked, to hear the producer's remark: “Pope Francis, it is time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

Did the producer stop researching this topic after the Globe published its page-one stories about the cover-up in Boston more than a decade earlier? Is Michael Sugar unaware that since 2002 the Church has mounted a massive campaign to establish and implement ambitious guidelines for the protection of children and young people? A link to a 10-year progress report—published in 2011—on these critical reforms is here.

Today in Catholic schools, parishes, and nonprofits across the nation,  everyone who has contact with children undergoes background checks and takes part in safe environment training, which includes directives that bar adults from being alone with children. Further, students are also trained to resist sexual predators and spot those who “groom” their prey. 

Catholic dioceses across the nation adhere to strict guidelines that require prompt reporting of credible allegations of clergy sexual abuse. Dioceses now have offices where victims can make allegations, and the report is assessed by lay review boards composed of experts who know a great deal about sexual predators who target children.

It would be interesting to know how many public schools, which have struggled to address child sexual abuse by teachers and others, have embraced similar reforms. In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued an alarming report, which estimated that 9.6 percent of students suffered from sexual abuse by teachers, coaches and others during their K-12 school years. (That report is available as a PDF here.)   

Meanwhile, the Church in the United States has dramatically improved its screening process for seminary admissions and its formation of future priests. And Pope Francis, with the backing of the newly-established Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, has directed bishops across the globe to promptly report allegations of clergy sexual abuse. In many countries where child sexual abuse is not a criminal offense, the Church will be leading the way for important changes.

We can never be complacent, and even the best guidelines cannot guarantee that every child will be protected. But the Church has accomplished a great deal since the Boston scandals—and I, for one, do not think it helpful to ignore or dismiss its campaign to change its practices. 

I believe “Spotlight” will help reaffirm the truth that child sexual abuse inflicts horrible trauma on its victims, and such activity can never be justified or  ignored. That message deserves repeating, or it will be forgotten.  The Vatican has endorsed the film and applauded the Academy for recognizing the film.

But I would respectfully suggest that Michael Sugar take the trouble to understand the important work that has been done in the Church. It offers a model for needed reforms in public and private schools across our country that can help protect children. Shouldn't that be our first concern? Taking another swipe at the Church sends the message that change isn't possible, and leaves the false and dangerous impression that the only children at risk are those enrolled in Catholic schools and altar server programs.  

Mr. Sugar, time to update your facts if you really want to "protect the children."