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Spotlight: Has the Catholic Church learned the lessons from the abuse scandal?

Pete Saunders and Peter D. Williams talk to Sam Hailes about whether the Catholic Church has changed

The true story of how a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe uncovered widespread sexual abuse by the Catholic Church in Boston has received the much-coveted ‘Best Picture’ award at The Oscars.

Upon accepting the award, producer Michael Sugar said Spotlight ‘gave a voice to survivors’.

‘This Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.’ He paused before speaking directly to the heart of the Catholic Church. ‘Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith’.

Despite the events that Spotlight portrays being well over a decade old, there is still a debate over whether the Catholic Church has done enough to protect the vulnerable. Peter D. Williams from Catholic Voices believes Sugar’s comments are ‘at least ten years behind the times’. He argues that both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, have both ‘better protected children’ and ‘restored the faith’.

But others disagree. The founder of The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) Pete Saunders is highly critical of the Church. He was abused as a child by Catholic priests in Wimbledon and has since made it his mission to speak out about child protection issues. He told Premier Christianity, ‘It sounds frivolous to say but I prayed and said please “Lord, give Spotlight the Oscar because that will help child protection”’.

Protecting the vulnerable

In December 2014 Saunders was appointed to the Pope’s ‘Commission for the Protection of Minors’. The Commission has since heard evidence about ongoing sexual abuse in an Italian town.

‘The response to the question of “what is being done about it?” was effectively “nothing”,’ Saunders reports. So he broke confidence and ‘blew the whistle’. There were calls for him to quit. But Saunders is unapologetic.

‘Morally and as a Christian I cannot keep quiet when I’m told someone is abusing children in X town. If that means breaking a confidence then I’m guilty as charged.’

His major criticism of the Commission is that it can only advise the Pope. ‘There’s no child protection department [in the Catholic Church], there’s no scrutiny committee or flying squad who will deal with those very real issues. We have to have those things.’

But Peter D. Williams from Catholic Voices says this criticism misunderstand the nature of the Church.

‘The Church is a not a top-down monolithic institution, but a heavily decentralised federation of dioceses, in which the local bishop has ultimate jurisdiction.

‘That is why there is a Commission that can advise the Pope on best practice, which he can then choose to prescribe to the rest of the Church, rather than an authoritative department that imposes standards.’

Unlike many survivors of abuse, Saunders has managed to retain his faith. But he says the Church of his upbringing ‘has got an awful lot to answer for’.  

‘The greatest grip that the devil has on this world is the abuse of our children. That is how the devil fights against the love of Christ – to hurt the most innocent.’

He calls the Catholic Church ‘the biggest threat to children on the planet’ and says it’s far worse than any other Christian denomination.

Williams disputes this. ‘No Church or organisation can be perfect on this issue, and there is always room for improvement on such a serious issue. Nevertheless, any serious appreciation of the empirical evidence shows that few if any institutions are serious about or doing more in preventing and tackling child abuse than the Catholic Church,’ he says.

Some have criticised Spotlight and viewed it as little more than an attack on Christians, but Saunders says it only targets ‘the systematic failings of the institutional Church’.  This view was also expressed by Spotlight actor Michael Keaton who stated the film was not about religion, but ‘institutions’.

Investigative journalism

Spotlight is in many ways a tribute to investigative journalism. The Washinton Post praised the film for being ‘the finest newspaper movie of its era’. The New York Times said it ‘beautifully captures the professional ethos of journalism’, and in her acceptance speech at the Oscars, producer Blye Pagon Faust said the film ‘shows us the necessity for investigative journalism’.

The entertaining element of Spotlight is the way journalists investigate their subject with determination and passion. Their task is a noble one. It could be argued that journalism at its best exists to hold institutions to account by shining a light of truth into dark places. (But before reporters feel too smug about this lofty standard, they should remember the reputation of their own institution has been damaged by the phone hacking scandal). Christians who place themselves outside of the Roman Catholic tradition could certainly argue that no institution is holy in and of itself.

A failure of society

One of the central lines of dialogue in the film is: ‘If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.’ Spotlight is as much about the failure of wider society to take action as it is an attack on one institution. 

The sad truth is sex abuse scandals haven’t only hit Christian institutions. In this country alone, Councils (Rotherham, Rochdale, Lambeth), the BBC and schools have been effected. Police investigations have caught up with celebrities such as Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris who used to be highly respected.  

Saunders is surprised but pleased that a film which deals with such a difficult and sensitive subject has attracted the highest of honours at the Oscars. He praises the film for exposing how society ‘turned a blind eye’ to the abuse in their community. He says the Church needs ‘sorting out’, but Williams argues the Vatican has already ‘done what it can’.

‘In the Noughties and earlier this decade they engaged in canonical reforms to make it easier and quicker for Bishops to investigate and defrock demonstrably abusive Priests. On a more normal local level, the Church in various countries has led the way in generating and providing best practice child protection.’

The debate over the Church's reaction to the child abuse scandal will run on and on. But either way, shining light into the dark recesses of Christian institutions is undoubtedly uncomfortable for Christians. Some are reluctant to dig up the past. But the only path forward is to own our collective mistakes, accept the consequences, and most importantly, act to make sure they never happen again.

In recent decades a festering cancer has been exposed within a number of institutions. However uncomfortable the operation, leaders such as Pope Francis must take steps to excise it. It’s not just the future of a Christian institution that’s at stake; it’s the lives of society's most vulnerable. 

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