Other Side of ‘Spotlight’: Church Response to Abuse Allegations

Film is a reminder that the Church ‘must listen to the stories of those most affected, tell them and, ultimately, repent and reform.’

(photo: Open Road Films)

WASHINGTON — While the movie Spotlight won “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards on Feb. 28 for portraying a journalistic investigation of the sex-abuse crisis in Boston, the story is incomplete without recognizing the reforms that followed in the Catholic Church, one commentator said.

Christopher White, associate director of Catholic Voices USA, said the movie is “a painful reminder of one of the darkest periods in Catholic Church history.”

At the same time, White said the U.S. Catholic response to abuse allegations has improved considerably.

“The newer reforms of accountability and transparency have made the Catholic Church among the leading institutions seeking to protect minors in the United States,” he said in a Feb. 29 essay for The Washington Post.

Spotlight covers The Boston Globe’s investigation into sex abuse of minors by Catholic figures in the archdiocese, as well as cover-up by some members of the hierarchy.

Spotlight ends with the Globe printing an explosive exposé, before listing all of the other cities where sex abuse was later found to be a problem in the Catholic Church.

But what happened in the years that followed is also an important part of the story, White said.

He cited Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s comment that the media “helped make our Church safer for children by raising up the issue of clergy sexual abuse and forcing us to deal with it.”

Cardinal O’Malley tweeted a statement about the film this week: “Protecting children and providing support for survivors and their families must be a priority in all aspects of the life of the Church. We are committed to vigilant implementation of policies and procedures for preventing the recurrence of the tragedy of the abuse of children. ... We continue to seek the forgiveness of all who have been harmed by the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse and pray that each day the Lord may guide us on the path toward healing and renewal.”

Among these safety measures are the Church’s “zero tolerance” policy for abusers, safe- environment training and oversight, and mandatory background checks for any individual who has contact with minors.

“If a clergy member commits even one act of sexual abuse, he is immediately and permanently removed from ministry,” White said.

The Vatican has also restructured its proceedings regarding abuse charges, according to White. From 2004 to 2011, there were 3,400 U.S. cases of alleged clergy abuse reported to Rome for review. Of the accused priests, 848 were laicized, and 2,572 were permanently removed from ministry.

White said Pope Francis is following the example of Benedict XVI in combating sex abuse by clergy.

“Francis knows that PR efforts will do the Church no favors,” he wrote. “Only a change in practice will ensure that predatory priests are a thing of the past.”

 In 2013, the Pope created the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to consider abuse cases. In June 2015, he created a special tribunal to discipline bishops who have been negligent in responding to abuse.

“This is an ongoing process that has not yet managed to fully heal the very painful wounds of the past, but it’s a commitment that a broken system is finally in the process of being fixed,” White continued.

He said that Spotlight is a reminder that the Church “must listen to the stories of those most affected, tell them and, ultimately, repent and reform.”