The Spotlight Effect: This Church Scandal Was Revealed by Outsiders

By Rachel Donadio
February 23, 2019

The Vatican’s conference on child sexual abuse would never be happening, and the dark secret of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up might never have come to light, if not for outsiders to the hierarchy.

Church officials reacted badly when investigative journalists at The Boston Globe in 2002 uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse of minors by clerics and a widespread culture of cover-up. One cardinal blamed the crisis on the “Jewish media” and decried a smear campaign against Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law who, after leaving Boston in disgrace for his role protecting predator priests, was appointed by Pope John Paul II to a powerful position at the Vatican selecting bishops.

This week at a conference here called by Pope Francis about the protection of minors in the Catholic Church, not one but two speakers—including a Nigerian nun speaking before Francis—cited the 2015 film Spotlight, about the Globe journalists who broke the story. It’s a sign of how times have changed and how popular culture has helped embolden victims to come forward, especially in the United States, where victims and lawsuits have put the Church under extreme pressure.But it’s also an acknowledgment of how this conference would never be happening, and the dark secret of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up might never have come to light, if not for outsiders to the hierarchy: journalists, civil authorities, films, women who listened to the victims (or who were victims themselves). They helped reveal a pattern of concealment within the Church and drove a shift in the culture.Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian nun and one of three women to speak at the conference, said the film had made her weep, especially at its conclusion, when a long list of cases and dioceses where abuse had occurred crossed the screen. “How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses, and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable,” she told the pope and 190 prelates from around the world. Sister Openibo pulled no punches, decrying a culture of “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency” inside the Church, and said its “culture of silence” needed to end for it to restore its credibility around the world.

A few days earlier, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former top Vatican prosecutor of abuse cases and an organizer of the conference, also mentioned Spotlight. “We need to say thank you to all the media who have helped the Church come to awareness and also bring the stories, the narratives, of so many victims to light,” he said.

To my mind, Archbishop Scicluna is the most powerful Vatican official with a full understanding of the scope of the crisis (although what changes he wants to see and whether he has the power to make them is another question). His words—albeit tailored to an audience of journalists, rather than members of the hierarchy—mark a shift for the Vatican, a way of saying not only that something horrible happened, but that it was outsiders who raised alarm bells. There’s less talk now of how the sexual revolution caused clergy to carry out abuse, or that children had somehow led priests into temptation, as there was back in 2002. Vatican officials no longer call media coverage of abuse cases “calumnious attacks” on the Church, as some did in the 2010 flare-up of the crisis under Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.

In the specificity of the procedures being discussed (but not necessarily adopted), and in the painful testimony of abuse victims being heard inside the walls of Vatican City, the conference marks a genuine change in how the Vatican and Francis are talking about an issue that has undermined the Church’s moral authority globally, financially bankrupted dioceses across the United States, shaken the faith of Ireland, seen prelates face civil justice in Australia and France, and seems to know no borders.

Phil Saviano, who was abused by a priest as a boy in Massachusetts and whose testimony was part of the basis for the Globe’s reporting, told me he was surprised by Archbishop Scicluna’s citing Spotlight and thanking journalists. “That was pretty unexpected,” he said. “It must have been tough for him to utter those words.” Saviano is one of several abuse victims who met with Archbishop Scicluna and other Vatican officials this week—but to their dismay, not with Francis. Many victims believe that the Vatican is offering too little, too late.

Saviano gave the archbishop a letter calling on the Vatican to make public the names, Church judicial decisions, and whereabouts of the 3,420 credible cases of sexual abuse by clergy that the Vatican has said were made known to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church body that adjudicates abuse cases, from 2004 to 2014. If the archbishop is “calling for transparency in the hope that the angry Catholics may find a way back to their faith, then you will answer this question: Who are these men and where in the world are they today?” he wrote.

Saviano’s letter gets to the heart of one of the unresolved issues animating this crisis: Victims have found that civil authorities take these abuse cases more seriously than Church authorities. Last August, a scathing grand jury report in Pennsylvania found that priests had abused more than 1,000 children there over decades. According to CNN, at least 46 attorneys general have contacted the office of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to inquire how he handled his investigation. A report released in Germany last year found that priests had abused 3,600 children over decades. A cardinal in France is now standing trial on allegations that he protected an abusive priest.

Leona Huggins, an abuse survivor from Vancouver who also met with Vatican officials this week, spoke with pain and outrage of how she had discovered that her former abuser, a priest, had been put back into ministry even after a criminal conviction in Canada. “I was served better by the criminal-justice system, but not by a moral system” of Church law, she told me.

Huggins is also part of another group of outsiders to Church hierarchy that has become more and more vocal: women. In November, the organization representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that contributed to abuse, and urged nuns to report abuse to law enforcement. This month, Francis acknowledged another Church scandal in which nuns had been sexually abused by priests for years, and said the Church was working to address the issue.

Just weeks ago, Women Church World, a monthly magazine distributed with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published an article decrying the sexual abuse of nuns by priests—a rare moment when the issues were raised from inside the Vatican. Lucetta Scaraffia, the editor in chief of Women Church World, wrote that since the 1990s, nuns had told the Vatican about systemic abuse and even the rape of nuns by priests. “Their denunciation was met with silence, and we know very well that silence contributes to making the rapists feel safe and ever more sure of their own impunity,” Scaraffia wrote. It’s the closest the Vatican has come to a #MeToo moment. In a separate editorial in the same issue, Anna Foa, a Jewish Italian historian and intellectual, wrote that the abuse crisis had transformed a caress “into an expression that’s practically obscene.”

Other women have begun speaking truth to power. Doris Wagner, a former nun, wrote a book about her being raped by a priest at age 24, and how her religious order had made her feel ashamed. At the time, “I thought I was the only nun to whom that had ever happened,” she said at a meeting this week in Rome. Wagner recently published a piece in the German press claiming a priest had tried to kiss her—in the confessional. She didn’t name him, but later the Vatican did. In January, it announced that the chief of staff of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stepped down. The priest maintains his innocence.

I asked Scaraffia what response she’d heard from the Vatican after publishing such strong words in Women Church World. “None,” she told me. “Total silence. I don’t know in their hearts what they’re thinking.”

Another victim who met with Vatican officials this week was François Devaux, a co-founder of the French victims’ group La Parole Libérée. “They’re aware of the state of emergency that they’re in, and that that state of emergency has led to a point where the credibility of the Church and of the pope has reached an apocalyptic state,” Devaux said after the meeting. “But we, the victims, we now have that credibility and that legitimacy, and they’re forced to act.”

The work of La Parole Libérée helped bring about the ongoing trial of Cardinal Barbarin of Lyon on charges that he covered up for an abusive priest. The cardinal denies wrongdoing and a verdict is expected next month. A film based on the case opened in France this week, Grâce à Dieu, or “By the grace of God,” directed by François Ozon, which is bound to raise greater public awareness of the abuse crisis in France.

But Ozon said he’d faced obstacles to making the film. At the Berlin Film Festival this month, where Grâce à Dieu took second prize, Ozon said that Canal+, France’s leading cable television network, which had funded many of his previous films, didn’t want to fund this one. He and his crew filmed church interiors outside France so as not to call the Church’s attention to the film before it was done. Lawyers for the accused priest tried to block the film’s release, saying it might have an impact on the outcome of the trial, but a judge upheld its release.

“It was thanks to the victims’ groups that people became aware” of the abuse crisis, Olivier Savignac, from the French victims’ association Notre Parole, told me. That group wants to bring about change from within the fold of the Church. “There was a first wave and then a groundswell,” he said of the abuse crisis, as we stood outside Saint Peter’s Square, looking toward the walled city that is the Vatican. But the silence of the Church, Savignac said, is “still a wall we need to break down.”



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