On Thanksgiving Day, I went to see this year’s Academy Award winning Picture of the Year, Spotlight. There was absolutely no one else in the auditorium that afternoon for the two o’clock showing, just myself and the images and story before me. What I witnessed that afternoon was one of the most fair and factual accountings of the tragedy of child abuse perpetrated by priests and others in the employ of the Church. It was also saddening and sickening, but well done. While the leadership of the Church in Boston and decisions made were the central focus of the film, it also acknowledged complicity by law enforcement, the legal profession and even the Boston Globe itself, albeit bit players in the overall tragedy. The editor of the Globe says both succinctly and correctly that “it takes a village to abuse a child.”
Briefly, the movie recounts how the “I-team” or investigative team is tasked with checking and tracking how the Archdiocese of Boston handled priests credibly accused of having abused children. If memory serves me correctly, four of the five team members were Catholic though some nominally. None embraced the project as an opportunity to embarrass the Church of their baptism. Simply, the deeper they delved, the more sickened they became with what they found. The end of the film, the day of the expose, ended not in jubilation among the five but a combined sense of relief that their work product was finally out there and a gut-wrenching sadness of what they found and its devastating effects and consequences on the victims.
Has the Church learned anything from the experience of the last twenty years? My answer would be “yes” and “no”. There should be no question that we have put in place at great expense protocols to protect children and vulnerable adults. Just ask any adult parent volunteer at their children’s parochial school or Christian formation program about the screening they were put through. In this diocese, safe environment procedures have added about 1.5 million dollars to the annual budget. It is money well spent, if it works.
Do bishops continue to shield and hide predatory priests and assign them knowing of their predilection? I doubt the assignment part. There is, however, a sort of demilitarized zone which is problematic. It occurs primarily when an allegation is made which is unable to be substantiated by the independent and mostly lay Abuse Review Committee. Some allegations, albeit very few, turn out not to be true. Those hurt the cause of every child, now an adult ever abused who wish that no one experience the life-changing trauma that was theirs. “Cannot be substantiated” does not sit well with this bishop and this is an area in my judgment still to be plumbed in how we handle allegations.
I also believe that too many seminarians, who are dismissed from seminaries, sometimes when they exhibit a certain predilection for adolescents over peers, are able to be admitted and picked up by other places. There is a mandate from the Holy See on this but I personally know from experience it is often more honored in the breach than the observance. Perhaps it is one more example of creeping “unable to be substantiated”. The four seminaries we use in this diocese would have no part of this I am sure.
I left the theatre on Thanksgiving afternoon giving thanks for a movie which laid bare the awful truths of the past and I was happy no one else was present in the auditorium to see me cry at times. For me, SPOTLIGHT may end up being the best picture of the decade.