Catholic leaders hope film prompts new look at church's efforts on abuse

Catholic leaders, both ordained and lay, said in op-ed essays they welcomed the attention certain to be paid to the Catholic Church upon the nationwide release of the movie "Spotlight," which chronicles the Boston Globe's uncovering of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002.

In the essays, they say the changes made by the church since the revelations made by the Globe have made children safer.


"No institution in the United States has done more in recent years than the Catholic Church to take proactive steps to protect children from the evil of sexual abuse," wrote Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington in a Nov. 2 letter emailed to Catholics in his archdiocese. The letter was reprinted in the Nov. 5 issue of the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper.

"While the film focuses on events of the past, viewers may think that the film is portraying the present situation in the church, concluding that nothing has changed in the church's response to the sexual abuse of minors," said an op-ed essay by Francesco C. Cesareo, chairman of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board.

"However," Cesareo added, "it is important to realize that the church has implemented numerous successful steps in the years since the revelations of abuse."

The all-lay National Review Board was established by the bishops in 2002 to provide an independent review of policies and programs the bishops were establishing to prevent and respond to sexual abuse of minors, and assess their compliance in implementation of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" through an annual audit of each U.S. diocese and eparchy.

Cardinal Wuerl outlined steps taken in the Washington Archdiocese to stop what he called the "shameful evil" of abuse.

"My wish is that other entities, like the public school system, would attempt to do what the church has done and offer the same level of protection to children in their care as we do," Cardinal Wuerl said. "For this reason, the archdiocese has shared its materials with public schools and other societal institutions, and we have offered to meet with them to explain all we do to protect young people."

"Over the last 13 years, the church has created safe environments for children and become a place where victims and survivors can begin a process of healing," Cesareo said in his essay, published in The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts. "Bishops across the United States -- and around the world -- have sought forgiveness for the lapses in church policy and decisions made that led to harm for its most innocent and cherished members," he said, "and will continue to apologize to victims and survivors for the abuse they have endured."

But "the church has done more than apologize. It has enacted an aggressive program to encourage prevention of such abuse and to provide a comprehensive support system for victims and survivors," added Cesareo, who is president of Assumption College in Worcester.

The charter, first adopted in 2002 and revised in 2005 and 2011, mandates background checks for clergy and any church employee or volunteer who have contact with children and ensures that children and adults in parishes or schools participate in safe-environment training. To date, Cesareo said, more than 1.9 million adults, or 98 percent, working in Catholic parishes and schools have gone through background checks and had the training, according to the U.S. bishops, and more than 4.4 million children, or 93 percent, in parishes and schools have been taught how to protect themselves from abuse and how to report an incident should it occur.

In an Oct. 30 column in The Catholic Free Press, Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester said it is "painful" to recall "the crisis of abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church" with the advent of "Spotlight."

"These crimes were heinous and they represented a broken trust on the part of some leaders in the church to those who were harmed. While we are committed to restoring that trust, we know it will take time," Bishop McManus added. "Yet it would be naive to think this is a problem that is limited to the Catholic Church or even to faith groups in general."

He quoted Pope Francis at the time the pope established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to oversee the global church's response to sexual abuse: "Everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused," the pontiff said.

The president of the commission is Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston -- successor to Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned amid criticism of his handling of clerical sex abuse cases as the scandal roiled the archdiocese.

Cardinal O'Malley said the movie's release "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."

In the statement, published Oct. 28 in The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, Cardinal O'Malley said: "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."

He added, "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 twelve years, hearing the accounts of their sufferings and humbly seeking their pardon."

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