Share this story

 | Peggy DeKeyser

“Spotlight” film focuses on Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis

A film that opened Nov. 6 draws renewed attention to one of the darkest periods of recent Church history: the clergy sex abuse scandal.

"Spotlight" the film that documents one of the darkest periods in recent Church history, has won Best Picture from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Oscar-winning movie, directed by Thomas McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is about the Boston Globe’s crack "Spotlight" team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States, and their coverage of the Catholic sex abuse scandal in Massachusetts. The Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the coverage.

"As I dug into the material, first just on my own, and then with my co-writer Josh Singer, we realized that the story operated on so many levels. ... It went well beyond the investigation itself," Thomas told National Public Radio in an Oct. 29 interview. "It was something we were immediately engrossed in."

The coverage of the story by the Boston Globe

In 2001, the Boston Globe began investigating, and in 2002 published a series of reports exposing widespread allegations of sex abuse by clergy in Boston. According to the coverage, 130 people at that time claimed to have been sexually abused by Father John Geoghan, and church officials had known about the abuse and covered it up. The scandal triggered a chain reaction. Thousands of victims of clergy sex abuse around the country went public and filed suit, creating a scandal that rocked American Catholicism.

"This was the best the Boston Globe had; the “Spotlight” team was the crown jewel of that institution," Thomas said in the interview. "All over the country there were instances [of abuse] ... but this story, this reporting, it connected the dots, and that is what sort of blew the roof off of this crisis."

If you have been abused or victimized by someone representing the Catholic Church ...

Please believe in the possibility for hope and help and healing. We encourage you to come forward and speak out. Every diocese in the United States now has a Victim Assistance Coordinator who is available to obtain support for your needs, to help make a formal complaint of abuse to the diocese, and to arrange a personal meeting with the bishop or his representative if you desire.

The Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Diocese of Lansing is:

Cheryl Williams-Hecksel, LMSW


The Church’s response in 2002

In April 2002, Pope John Paul II called all the American cardinals to Rome to discuss the crisis. In Dallas in June 2002, American bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the document that defines the Church’s response to the crisis.

The Charter

The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is a comprehensive set of procedures established by the USCCB in June 2002 for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The Charter also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse. 

The Charter directs action in all the following matters:

  • Creating a safe environment for children and young people
  • Healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors
  • Making prompt and effective response to allegations
  • Cooperating with civil authorities
  • Disciplining offenders
  • Providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board.

Annual audits: Is the Church succeeding in protecting children?

On April 17, 2015, the U.S. bishops released the results of their annual compliance audit (July 1, 2013 – June 30 2014) that tracks the U.S. Church’s response to the abuse of children by clergy, according to guidelines first established by the 2002 Dallas Charter.

The audit reports that during the audit period, the U.S. Church:

  • Trained 98 percent of its two million volunteers, employees, educators, clergy and candidates in parishes in how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse.
  • Prepared more than 4.4 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves.
  • Ran background checks on close to two million volunteers and employees, 51,314 clerics and 6,568 candidates for ordination.

Results of audit

  • 620 survivors of child sex abuse by clergy made 657 allegations.
  • 130 cases substantiated; 62 unsubstantiated; 243 under investigation; 210 unable to be proven or disproven; 12 “other.”
  • 37 allegations were reported by current minors (all were reported to civil authorities); the remaining 620 were made by adults abused in the past. Six of the 37 allegations were substantiated.

According to a survey by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than 80 percent of credible allegations of abuse reported between July 2013 and June 2014 date back over 25 years, with the majority occurring from the 1960s-80s.

The remaining credible allegations date back as early as the 1920s.

Though the audit indicates a continuing decline in new allegations of abuse, it shows an increase in the reports of “boundary violations.” The report’s authors suggest the increase may be an indication that safe environment training is making children more likely to report behaviors that make them uncomfortable.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, responds to the film “Spotlight”

The “Spotlight” film depicts a very painful time in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and particularly here in the Archdiocese of Boston. It is very understandable that this time of the film’s release can be especially painful for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy.

The media’s investigative reporting on the abuse crisis instigated a call for the Church to take responsibility for its failings and to reform itself – to deal with what was shameful and hidden – and to make the commitment to put the protection of children first, ahead of all other interests.

We have asked for and continue to ask for forgiveness from all those harmed by the crimes of the abuse of minors. As archbishop of Boston, I have personally met with hundreds of survivors of clergy abuse over the last 12 years, hearing the accounts of their sufferings and humbly seeking their pardon. I have been deeply impacted by their histories and compelled to continue working toward healing and reconciliation while upholding the commitment to do all that is possible to prevent harm to any child in the future.