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Why Catholics should be grateful for Spotlight and the media's exposing abuses in the church

Spotlight serves as a painful reminder of one of the darkest periods in Catholic Church history, where more than 200 priests and religious were accused of abusing minors and were reassigned in a cover-up.

The movie, which won best picture at the Oscars in the US on Sunday, chronicles the Boston Globe's groundbreaking coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the archdiocese of Boston that would go on to win the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

Pursuing priests: the crusading cast from Spotlight.
Pursuing priests: the crusading cast from Spotlight. 

Reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of the Globe's revelations, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley said 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." (Editor's note: The Globe's editor at the time was Martin Baron, now executive editor of the Washington Post.)

And as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat​ observed in 2010: "The Catholic Church has always had enemies ... But Catholics – and especially Catholic leaders, from the Vatican to the most far-flung diocese – should welcome it, both as a spur to virtue and as a sign that their faith still matters, that their church still looms large over the affairs of men, and that the world still cares enough about Christianity to demand that Catholics live up to their own exacting standards."

It's for this very reason that US Catholics should be grateful for the earnest reporting that took place then – and continues to take place – to tell a story that must be told. However, an unfortunate feature of an otherwise excellent film is that Spotlight ends where the real story begins.

In January 2002, the Globe first broke the story of former priest John Geoghan's abuse of more than 130 young boys. In more than 600 follow-up articles, they revealed the tragic story of numerous other abusers and the cover-up that reached the highest levels of authority within the American church, law enforcement and the legal system. Dubbed as "The Long Lent of 2002" by Catholic commentator George Weigel, the revelations marked a crisis of faith for Catholics around the world.

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Since then, the church adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy for abusers. If a clergy member commits even one act of sexual abuse, he is immediately and permanently removed from ministry. In the US, the church has implemented mandatory background checks for any individual – priest or otherwise – who comes into contact with minors. And every single US diocese has enacted Safe Environment co-ordinators to ensure compliance with both canon and civil law enforcement and independent, outside review boards have been set up to monitor these initiatives.

The newer reforms of accountability and transparency have made the Catholic Church among leading institutions seeking to protect minors in the US.

Local and national improvements were also strengthened by a restructuring of abuse proceedings in Rome. Of the 3400 cases reported between 2004 and 2011 to the Vatican for official review, 848 priests were laicised and 2572 were permanently removed from active ministry within the church.

Following in the tradition of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Pope Francis has fast-tracked other reforms. In 2013, he announced the creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a permanent body designed to promote reform. The committee is made up of survivors of sexual abuse, psychologists and other experts who are tasked with both pastoral care and maintaining accountability for those in authority. This past June he doubled down on reform efforts by establishing a special tribunal explicitly set up to discipline negligent bishops.

In both word and deed, Francis has reiterated that an institution whose very mission is to care for the vulnerable cannot be compromised by the failings of those charged with this responsibility. 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.

Moments after meeting with victims of sexual abuse during his recent visit to the US, Francis did not mince words about this legacy while speaking to the priests of Philadelphia.

"I continue to be ashamed that persons charged with the tender care of those little ones abused them and caused them grave harm," the Pope said. "I deeply regret this. God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors may no longer be kept secret; I commit myself to ensuring that the church makes every effort to protect minors and I promise that those responsible will be held to account."

After his meeting in Philadelphia, David Clohessy, spokesman for the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priest (SNAP), said, "Is a child anywhere on earth safer now that a Pope, for maybe the seventh or eighth time or ninth time, has briefly chatted with abuse victims? No."

But as Spotlight reminds us, perhaps one of the greatest lessons the church has learnt is that for the institution to understand the full devastation of the clergy abuse crisis, we must listen to the stories of those most affected, tell them, and ultimately, repent and reform. Francis knows that PR efforts will do the church no favours. Only a change in practice will ensure that predatory priests are a thing of the past.

Like the example of the reporters from the Globe, perhaps one of the greatest lessons the church has learned is that for the institution to understand the full devastation of the clergy abuse crisis, we must listen to the stories of those most affected, tell them, and ultimately, repent and reform.

Early on in Spotlight, when the Globe's editorial staff is weighing whether or not it has the resources, manpower and long-term endurance to take on the daunting task of uncovering this story, one reporter comments that "the church thinks in centuries".

Centuries-long thinking is why Catholics around the world who passed on the faith from generation to generation felt so betrayed by their leaders who failed in their fidelity to the gospel. But it's also the motivation for the reform efforts of the past decade – and a renewed commitment from the church to ensure that for centuries to come, such tragedies must never be allowed to take place again.

Christopher White is associate director of Catholic Voices USA and co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalising the Catholic Church (Encounter Books, 2013).

Washington Post

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