November 27 2021

Spotlight: We need mandatory reporting laws to uncover institutional child abuse

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Spotlight: We need mandatory reporting laws to uncover institutional child abuse



Michael Keaton as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson; Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron; Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes; Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer; John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr; and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll. From Spotlight (Courtesy of Open Road Films)

Spotlight, which recounts the battle of reporters on the Boston Globe in 2000-2002 to expose a decades-long child abuse scandal in one of the world’s richest and most powerful Catholic dioceses, could not be more topical.

Only a few days ago Peter Saunders, a clerical sexual abuse survivor who has been highly critical of the Vatican’s response to recent scandals, was forced to take a ‘leave of absence’ from the Vatican’s abuse commission.

In the same week, the Vatican reiterated its long-held opposition to mandatory reporting of abuse. These developments suggest that the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to face up to its own failings on child abuse is as strong as ever.

Spotlight is a brilliantly watchable drama, and more nuanced than I expected. It eschews easy caricatures. The film shows how Boston was so dominated by the Catholic Church – the protective blanket for generations of Irish immigrants to America – that even good people became complicit in the cover-up.

As a character in the film observes: ‘If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.’ As the film unfolds it becomes apparent that the Boston Globe had itself been culpable: in 1993, a victims’ lawyer sent the Globe a list of 20 priests guilty of child abuse, but rather than investigate, the Globe decided to bury the story. That only changed when an outsider- a Jewish editor, newly arrived from Miami- came on the scene.

To what extent does Spotlight mirror events in the UK? There are certainly parallels.

The Catholic abuse scandal hit the headlines in England at almost exactly the same time, in 2000, when the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was accused of having moved a paedophile priest, Father Michael Hill, from parish to parish to cover up complaints of abuse – a pattern echoed in Catholic abuse scandals worldwide.

Like the journalists in Boston, lawyers in the UK who sued the Church also learned how to identify possible euphemisms for paedophile priests in the annual Catholic directories – ‘on sick leave’, ‘c/o Bishop’s House’ etc .

Of course, nowhere in England does the Catholic Church wield the political power it enjoyed in Boston or Southern Ireland. But in England just as in Boston, fear of the Church meant victims were easily silenced. As Graham Wilmer, a victim of abuse by a priest of the English Salesian Order explains:

‘I was totally in awe of priests. I believed that if I said anything I would burn in hell for evermore.’

For decades, child-abusing priests were quietly shifted from one parish to another and victims discouraged from going to the police. This is a powerful film with many lessons. For me, three stand out.

The first is that high quality investigative journalism has been central to exposing child abuse scandals – in this country as much as in the USA. Worryingly, this resource-intensive journalism, where stories are pursued doggedly over many months (or in the case of the abuse scandal in Boston, over 2 years), is in retreat, a victim of cost cutting in the shift from newspaper and TV to the Internet.

Spotlight shows graphically why investigative journalism matters, and why its decline should trouble anyone who cares about the accountability of powerful institutions.

Secondly, as happened in Boston, legal cases have helped to expose institutional culpability, but the legal system has important limitations – in England probably even more than in the USA.

One such limitation is the restrictions imposed here on use of discoverable documents, which, as litigators will know, are generally disclosed solely for the purpose of the litigation and usually cannot be shared publicly, even where they contain material of significant public interest.

When writing Betrayed, my book on the Catholic abuse scandal in England, there was much more that I would have wished to share but could not, as it was information I only knew from disclosure provided by the Church in the course of litigation.

We might imagine we have open justice, but far too often we don’t.

There are other problems with the legal system. In particular, artificial and unrealistic time limits for civil claims continue to provide powerful institutions with unwarranted protection from legal accountability. The Scottish Parliament is considering abolishing time limits for institutional abuse claims in Scotland – a sensible and long overdue change – but in England we remain trapped in archaic limitation laws which too often frustrate justice.

The third lesson? If Spotlight proves anything, it’s the urgent need for legal sanctions to prevent cover-up of child abuse in institutional settings. In short, we need mandatory reporting. In Boston, as in so many other places, fealty to an all-powerful institution took precedence over the protection of children. Ultimately, nearly 100 paedophile priests in the Boston diocese were brought to book. But only after decades when so many in the Church knew what was happening but kept it hidden. This is an all-too-familiar story.

What hope can there be to challenge this omerta when men like Cardinal Bernard Law – the prelate who presided over this scandal – are rewarded by the Pope with promotion to a sinecure in Rome instead of facing criminal penalties for covering up abuse. Mandatory reporting laws have been vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church – something which will come as no surprise when you’ve seen Spotlight. But the time for reform has surely come.


9 responses to “Spotlight: We need mandatory reporting laws to uncover institutional child abuse”

  1. Christopher Lennon says:

    “in 1993, a victims’ lawyer sent the Globe a list of 20 priests guilty of child abuse”
    No, in 1993, a complainant’s lawyer sent the Globe a list of 20 priests allegedly guilty of child abuse. Can you see the difference? If you are interested in justice, as you say, then it cuts both ways. You even traduce people by name who have never been found guilty of anything. That is unfair.
    One reason the Catholic Church used to deal with these sad cases internally was that priests are not employees, but have given their lives to the Church in return for lifelong support. That has now changed, where abuse has been proven, i.e. on conviction. Another fact is that the nature of the offence was not well understood at the time most of these abuse cases occurred and it was not realised the perpetrators represented a lifelong danger to young people and could not be ‘cured’. It is much better understood as a direct result of what occurred. It is not a coincidence that insidious prejudice against the Catholic Church has been endemic in England for over 400 years and is strong in Australia. The admitted and regrettable scandal has been used as a stick, by the media and especially the BBC, to an extent not seen in relation to the Church of England, for example, which has certainly not been free of similar problems.
    Although you give it no credit, the Catholic Church has put effective safeguarding in place, including screening of those applying to join the priesthood. It is grossly unfair that a shadow of suspicion has been cast over all priests, the vast majority of whom are selfless and good men.

  2. James Morrison says:

    ““in 1993, a victims’ lawyer sent the Globe a list of 20 priests guilty of child abuse”
    No, in 1993, a complainant’s lawyer sent the Globe a list of 20 priests allegedly guilty of child abuse. Can you see the difference?”

    “Ultimately,nearly 100 paedophile priests in the Boston diocese were brought to book.” Can you see the truth?

    “The admitted and regrettable scandal has been used as a stick, by the media and especially the BBC, to an extent not seen in relation to the Church of England, for example, which has certainly not been free of similar problems.”
    Can you list the thousands and thousands of child abuse victims of the CofE? Of course not.

    “It is grossly unfair that a shadow of suspicion has been cast over all priests, the vast majority of whom are selfless and good men.” If you are a member of an organisation that supports massive child abuse you are already a supporter of child abuse. (I might be a Nazi but I’m a selfless good man. – I don’t think so.)

    • Christopher Lennon says:

      James, your closing remark is offensive. I am a catholic, as it happens and the Catholic Church, the organisation you refer to, does not “support” child abuse in any shape or form and neither do I, as a father and grandfather. I think that was clear enough from my earlier post, which is about the injustice of unproven allegations and innuendo against the Church and individual priests being treated as facts. Yes, there were serious cases of clerical abuse and the perpetrators are criminals, who should be brought to book, as many have been, but it is unfair to use the historic scandal to smear those innocent of any wrongdoing.
      John, I object to your reference to “the roman cult” (sic) to describe the oldest Christian Church, with a continuous history from Apostolic times. I also dispute your statistic of “at least 50 per cent of (R)oman priests failed to maintain their vow of celibacy”, taken from a fictional drama, as that cannot be true, in my opinion, from experience. Without disputing the existence of human failings, or perversion, the true percentage overall must be much lower. Priestly celibacy is also not a major doctrinal difference between protestants and catholics, contrary to your statement and many protestant clergy have been, and are, voluntarily celibate, as are some lay people. It is not “unnatural”, nor does it “cultivate sexual perversion”. That is an outrageous suggestion and the very opposite of the truth. You are merely advertising your own prejudice by asserting protestant moral superiority and if you believe cases of child abuse in the Anglican Church result from the corruption of power, rather than moral turpitude, then I believe you are mistaken, as it is a result of the same problems of human weakness, perversion and an historic deficient moral climate, seen most recently in Dame Janet Smith’s report on the Saville scandal and the BBC.
      As for mandatory reporting, I am not sure we need it, as the climate now established Worldwide should ensure there is no place for the morally bankrupt to hide in the institutions we are discussing, whilst a mandatory reporting regime would also carry with it the danger of false allegations of something so heinous being treated as fact, before any proper and sensitive investigation.

      • John says:

        I think you will find there are older churches than the roman cult still in existence – for example, the syriac christian cult. The present outfit only really gained acceptance as the official ult of the former roman empire after Roman Emperor Constantine ordered that the cult should be officially recognized from around 311 ACE and had it largely officially decreed at the Nicean Council in 325 ACE. The current cult is not as old as you think it is.
        The film “Spotlight” is not a fictional drama. It is based on a real story of priestly abuse that took place in the Boston area and which had substantial ramifications right across the US and the rest of the world up to and including a whole bunch of fugitive criminal priests, bishops and cardinals – as well as an ex-pope – all hiding out in the vatican.
        The figure of 50 per cent failing to maintain celibacy was put forward by a consultant former priest. The initial reaction by the journalists – just like you – was one of complete disbelief.
        After carrying out research into numbers of absent priests, they found that 87 out of a projected 180 priests were absent at various times, indicating that half of them were absent due to having to overcome their paedophile tendencies at different times.
        The priestly way of life is unnatural and perverse.
        This is why it has to go.

        • Christopher Lennon says:

          John, in reply o your post of 4th March, we are off topic, but you should know I will not find anything of the sort. It is another Protestant myth, I last came across propagated by Jehovah’s Witnesses, who would say that, when their claim even to be Christians is so compromised. I used the term “Apostolic” to describe the Catholic Church advisedly. By describing the largest, by far, Christian denomination as an “outfit” only betrays your prejudices and ignorance again, as does your absurd reference to “fugitive Bishops, Cardinals and an ex-Pope”. I still dispute the number and percentage of guilty priests you are so ready to accept, or that absence from a parish at a given time necessarily had connotations of paedophilia, which is a rare deviance in the population at large, after all, but I am unaware of a single senior clergyman, much less a Pope (who?), accused of sexual offences, or tried, although there have been resignations following allegations of cover-up (and in one case, a self-admitted failure to uphold standards) and as we have seen with the BBC, that attitude in those in authority was prevalent in the Seventies and Eighties, far beyond the Catholic Church. The priestly way of life is neither unnatural, nor perverse, or will you condemn, out of hand, Protestant clergy who are voluntarily celibate, monks and nuns through the ages, or Buddhist monks, to offer another example? I personally believe there is room for a married ordinate and it already exists, in the case of former Anglican clergy received into the Catholic Church, who continue their ministry, but that is not to condemn celibacy voluntarily adhered to by those deserving of respect. If the Church decides to change its own tradition, I expect a dual priesthood will be the way forward and it will not change because of outsiders shouting insults, which is all you are doing.

          • John says:

            Yet again, you are being delusional.
            See http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-pope-benedict-knew-about-abuse-in-the-catholic-church for an update on the current situation in the roman cult regarding child abuse – including references to the brother of the current ex-pope.
            Incidentally, Paul was not an apostle but he founded the roman cult.
            All the original people allegedly involved with the fictional Yeshuah remained in Palestine – they did not move any further than Syria.
            There is no apostolic connection whatsoever with the western cults.
            They all result from Constantine’s actions in 325 ACE.

  3. John says:

    One other particular point made in the film was that at least 50 per cent of roman priests failed to maintain their vow of celibacy, which amounted to around 90 priests in the Boston area.
    A major difference between romans and protestants is on celibacy.
    Protestants do not require celibacy but the roman cult does.
    The roman requirement is unnatural and artificial, which is why many adherents fail to achieve and maintain the standard required.
    Roman ideas cultivate sexual perversion – protestants do not.
    In the case of the anglicans, we see recent cases of child abuse by people in positions of authority, which brings us back to the famous saying “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power absolutely.”
    When you use the term ‘mandatory reporting’, I believe this requires further clarification. It is apparent you feel that reporting of incidents and suspicions to the police should be obligatory if not an absolute legal requirement – after all, the offending priests – if found guilty – will have been found guilty and sentenced as the criminals the law has established they are.
    But this meaning must be made much more explicit if support for the full legal process is to be encouraged among the wider public.

  4. Christopher Lennon says:

    And you evidently believe anything you read or hear, John. End of conversation, to spare readers.

    • John says:

      And you choose to emulate a fictitious representation of an ostrich, i.e. you bury your head in the sand rather than confront real facts.
      If that is what keeps you happy then as a utilitarian humanist, I say enjoy your ignorance if it helps to keeps you happy.
      Be my guest and wallow in your own self-imposed stupefaction.
      Meanwhile, all around the world, religious organisations are having their pants sued off them by children they have molested and abused.
      PS: I very much doubt anyone else is bothering to read any of this.

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