The Clergy Sexual Abuse Story Is Revisited In "Spotlight"

"Spotlight" recalls a very dark time in the Roman Catholic Church.

Posted Nov 05, 2015

The release of the new film, Spotlight, this week in select theaters highlights the remarkable tale of how the Boston Globe broke the clergy sexual abuse story in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston during January 2002. The film is likely to get a great deal of attention including many awards not only due to the nature of the subject matter but also because it features award-winning performers Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams among others. The film will surely reignite conversation and perhaps a lot of difficult emotions among those who have been impacted by the clergy sexual abuse story including abuse victims and their families as well as many enagaged rank-and-file Catholics and clerics alike. 

Those of us who have been working in this field for a very long time (in my case since the 1980s) were not at all surprised by the news reports when they finally achieved national attention through the Boston Globe's reporting efforts. In fact our response was more akin to an important line in the film: “What took you folks so long?” 

My colleagues and I were well aware of the problem of clergy sexual abuse not only within the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church but throughout so many other organizations that serve children and families (e.g., other church groups, the Boy Scouts, youth sports, public and private schools). In fact, here at Santa Clara University we held a press conference in 1998 on this topic and released an edited book stating that the best evidence at the time (i.e., late 1990s) suggested that about 5% of Catholic clerics in the U.S. sexually abused children during the last half of the 20th Century. No one was interested in the story (our press conference in 1998 was very poorly attended) until the Boston Globe somehow ignited a flame of concern and attention that ultimately swept the globe.

used with permission from
Source: used with permission from

The 2002 Boston Globe investigative report set in motion remarkable changes in not only the Roman Catholic Church but in many other organizations that serve children and families in such a way that children and youth are now as safe as they possibly can be engaging with these organizations. State-of-the-art policies and procedures have been implemented with consultation among civic, church, law enforcement, mental health, and other organizations offering best practices in child protection as well as screening of all those who wish to become clerics or others working with vulnerable youth populations. In the Catholic Church these procedures now include (1) mandated reporting to civic authorities of all accusations of sexual misconduct by clerics, staff members, and volunteers, (2) maintaining a "zero tolerance" policy for abuse of children and vulnerable others for all those with credible accusations of abuse and never allowing them to serve in ministry ever again, (3) mandated safe environment training as well as (4) criminal background checks and fingerprinting for all those who work (or even volunteer) within church environments, and (5) conducting and publishing annual audits (conducted by an independent and non-church related professional firm) for all church dioceses and religious orders to ensure compliance with these new best practices and procedures.

used with permission from SCU
Source: used with permission from SCU

The church, and the community in general, is much safer in 2015 thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of the Boston Globe Spotlight team. While there are always risks of problem cases falling between the cracks when it comes to child safety more and more of these cracks are being sealed shut to ensure that all children are safe in church as well as in other community environments. That's the good news emerging from a very troubling, disturbing, and dark story that is highlighted in Spotlight. 

For those interested, additional information can be found below including a trailer for the Spotlight film here:

A National Public Radio report on the film can be found here:

Information about church policies and procedures for child protection can be found here:

A multi-authored reflection by leading experts about the decade long crisis (2002-2012) of clergy abuse in the church can be found here:

Copyright 2015 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP

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