‘Spotlight’ On Clergy Sex Abuse 20 Years Later Shows Why Journalism Matters

Religion Unplugged - The Media Project - Institute for Nonprofit News [Dallas TX]

January 11, 2022

By Clemente Lisi

The date Jan. 6 means different things to people. For me, as a Catholic, it is the Feast of the Epiphany. It marks the date on the liturgical calendar when the Magi, according to the Bible, brought gifts to the baby Jesus.

This year, the date became a polarizing remembrance of the 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection, riots or whatever else one calls it, depending on their political affiliation. For me, this Jan. 6 marked a special anniversary — the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Boston Globe “Spotlight” team’s investigation into predator priests. The series of articles won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 in the Public Service category.

I must admit that the anniversary went by without much fanfare. It’s surprising, given that the ramifications from those original series of news articles reverberate within the church, both in the U.S. and globally, and that it was even made into a 2015 movie, “Spotlight,” that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Even the Vatican gave the film two thumbs up at the time.

Maybe the events of a year ago in Washington were just too compelling for the news media — even though they love anniversaries — to make room for coverage of anything else.

That’s a shame because the stories remain so very important to both the craft of journalism and the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to police itself in the decades following the Second Vatican Council — a betrayal of trust of so many people over a period of four decades. The question is this: What are the elements of this story that are still alive, important and worthy of coverage now and in the future?

The National Catholic Reporter ran an opinion piece by Barbara Thorp, a licensed, independent clinical social worker and former director of the Pro-Life Office and Office of Pastoral Support and Child Protection in the Archdiocese of Boston. This is how she recalled the moment:

Pursuing the truth to honestly respond to the queries of survivors and their families became a baseline for authentic pastoral response, a meaningful path to justice and healing. It was a mantra that in order to restore trust we must act in a trustworthy manner and tell the truth no matter how terrible the truth. Canon lawyers seemed to speak another language and the headwinds of canon law were carried on another mantra: “But it’s not a canonical crime.”

On Sept. 8, 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to a settlement of $85 million with almost 550 survivors. At the time, it was the largest such settlement in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church. In April 2008, when five survivors from Boston met with Pope Benedict XVI, a hand-crafted book with the first names of 1,476 survivors was presented to him.

Despite all that has happened over 20 years, those poignant questions from survivors and their families continue to hang in the air still not fully answered. Transparency, accountability, listening and simply telling the truth remain the foundation of any hope for restored trust and healing.

This was her thesis as to where we are today. The bottom line: There still needs to be a national database of accused prelates — as in, bishops, archbishops and cardinals:

In August 2018, following the twin disasters of the revelations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sordid history of sexual abuse of both children and vulnerable adults and the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, Pope Francis published a Letter to the People of God that coincided with his trip to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. Francis’ words cut to the heart of the matter with a stunningly bold statement of accountability:

With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.

Yet, even with Francis’ words acknowledging the failure of the church to act in a timely manner, a lack of urgency and decisive action continues to plague any real effort at reform. The single most important action that the bishops of the United States and the religious orders could do to demonstrate their professed resolve to protect and heal is a radical truth telling.

The church has done a lot to improve transparency, but it does largely remain a secretive organization. Nonetheless, it is the role of journalists — both in the secular and Catholic press — to continue to call out wrongdoing in the church whenever they come across it. That can take on many forms, but it remains imperative that any organization run by people needs oversight, and in most cases, that is what the role of the press is in a free society.

America magazine, another left-wing Catholic publication, also examined the legacy of that series, using the anniversary to ask, “Is the church a safer place?”

During the past 20 years, many law enforcement agencies have begun to focus on sexual abuse not only in churches but also in sports, youth organizations and educational institutions. They have prosecuted abusers and, in some cases, monitored Catholic dioceses’ responses to new allegations of sexual abuse. Some state legislatures have enacted “look back” laws, allowing for prosecutions and lawsuits against offenders and entities that had previously been protected by statutes of limitations. More adult survivors, learning that there were others abused when they were children too, have come forward to tell their stories without embarrassment or shame.

America did not shy away from mentioning other scandals of a similar nature to engulf the church, most notably that of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Many news organizations have very conveniently forgotten about McCarrick when it comes to the series of allegations emerging in recent years. Lingering effects of the “Team Ted” era in Catholic-beat journalism?

Another “shock wave” of abuse reports came in 2018, when then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was revealed as an abuser of adult-age seminarians. (Mr. McCarrick has also been accused of sexually abusing minors.) In fact, attention to cases involving a power differential — such as would exist between a bishop and a seminarian, or between a priest and a “vulnerable adult” — was overdue and not surprising to those of us who were familiar with the existence of these types of cases. In his 2019 motu proprio “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You Are the Light of the World”), Pope Francis defined a vulnerable adult as “any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense.” The inclusion of the term “even occasionally” recognizes that vulnerability may be present in specific and temporary situations (like retreats) that may occur multiple times, and may cause a person to not understand what is happening to them or be able to defend against maltreatment or manipulation.

I am often asked whether the church is a safer place for minors who participate in Catholic ministries than it was before 2002. The answer is yes. As surveys by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and other credible sources reveal, reported incidents of abuse of minors by Catholic clergy have gone down substantially since 2002. That is not a reason to let our guard down, of course; we must remain focused on the goal of seeing no new cases.

As we begin the third decade of responding to the sexual abuse crisis, another important question remains. Has the church fully addressed the issues related to clergy and laypersons, including educators, who abuse or otherwise exploit or groom vulnerable adults, seminarians, counselees, spiritual directees and students? Here, the answer is “not yet.”

It is true that cases are way down — and that’s thanks largely to the Globe’s original reporting. We also need to remember that other journalists covered this scandal for nearly two decades before the “Spotlight” bombshell. Does the name Gilbert Gauthe ring any bells?

Great journalism makes organizations and people accountable and often leads to improvement. Revelations and accusations continue to trickle out, but they largely took place prior to 2002 at a time when local dioceses and the church overall did a poor job handling the situation.

The Catholic League, a conservative organization that often points out media bias, both praised and reprimanded the Globe for its reporting. In the video above, the group claims allegations are way down and that much of the sex-abuse coverage is laced with anti-Catholic bias. This point of view may explain why many in the conservative Catholic press failed to tackle the anniversary.

As for journalism itself, “Spotlight” did little for the growth of religion reporting. In newsrooms across the country, religion reporters have been let go in large numbers since 2002, in part because of a collapse in traditional ad revenue. In that regard, The Boston Globe’s reporting did nothing to stem that bleeding. In 2016, Bob Smietana’s piece in The Washington Post about being worried for the future of religion journalism was spot on. And many of the sad newsroom realities that our own Terry Mattingly described in The Quill in 1983 are still in place.

It’s unfortunate that more news organizations — both mainstream and religious — did not see fit to mark this anniversary with new information about where the church is now. This story is not over. It’s true that many church officials — cardinals and bishops in particular — have been criticized for their handling of allegations. Even the last three popes, including Francis, have been accused of not doing enough. The church can do better in that regard.

Overall, the church is in a much better place, although more work can always be done. For now, let’s applaud that great journalism of the past continues to be with us in the form of new reporting that creates more accountability in the Catholic Church and all religious institutions. Today, more allegations are being taken seriously. You have journalism to thank for that culture shift.