US bishops advise dioceses how to deal with ‘Spotlight’ movie

File under:  PR Before Contrition

The Church wants clergy to be ready to help those for whom the film triggers painful memories

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, left, with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Rome in 2012. The US bishops have issued guidelines to help dioceses respond to questions about the “Spotlight” movie on clergy sexual abuse.

By Lisa Wangsness

Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States have sent talking points to dioceses around the country to help them prepare for the release of the movie “Spotlight,” highlighting the progress the Church says it has made in preventing and responding to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops drew up the guidance and statistics in September in anticipation of the movie’s release, said Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the bishops. He said Church leaders wanted dioceses to be ready to speak to victims who experienced pain with the release of the movie, and to show them — and the wider public — that the Church has changed.

Letters from bishops and stories in diocesan newspapers issued in recent days endeavor to portray a Church dramatically — and permanently — transformed by the abuse crisis since The Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation of clergy abuse and the coverup by Church hierarchy. The film chronicles that Globe investigation.

In their public responses so far, the bishops reiterate apologies to victims and in some cases offer phone numbers they can call to seek counseling or report abuse. They also detail abuse prevention efforts, renew vows to immediately report abuse complaints to civil authorities, and highlight the American Church’s zero-tolerance policy that mandates the removal of predators from the Church.

“I can tell you unequivocally that anything that raises awareness of the crime of sexual abuse of minors and encourages transparency is a good thing,” Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y., said in a statement. “I certainly hope ‘Spotlight’ will be a vehicle to communicate the truth and advance the dialogue regarding the protection of children.”

The diocesan newspaper in Orange County, Calif., hinted at the daunting scale of the task for the Church: In that diocese in 2014, it reported, 244 priests, 108 deacons, 1,741 teachers, and more than 27,550 school employees and volunteers underwent training to help prevent abuse, and nearly 55,000 children participated in “safe environment” education.

Because the movie will not open nationwide until Nov. 20, most bishops in the United States have not seen it. The film began showing in Boston and a few other cities last Friday.

“Spotlight” ends with a long list of dioceses in the United States and around the world where similar coverups of clergy sexual abuse of children came to light after the Globe’s revelations about the Archdiocese of Boston. A recent report by the National Catholic Reporter found that clergy abuse — which the Church once silenced by settling with victims and swearing them to secrecy — has cost the Catholic Church in America $4 billion since 1950 in settlements, therapy for victims, and other costs.

“In our experience, Catholics and others will take the movie as proof of what is happening today, not what happened in the past,” the “Spotlight Resources” memo from the bishops group said. “Do not let past events discourage you. This is an opportunity to raise the awareness of all that has been done to prevent child sexual abuse in the church.”

Clemmer said the memo was sent to “safe environment” coordinators in each diocese, who oversee diocesan programs and policies to prevent abuse. The aim was to prepare prelates and Church workers to help those for whom the film triggers painful memories, particularly victims who have never come forward before, he said.

“Anybody who comes forward should know that the Church is ready to accompany them,” Clemmer said. “It’s a spirit of gratitude for people who have the courage to come forward, and who make the Church and children safer.”

In late October, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston and a top adviser to Pope Francis on clergy sexual abuse policy, was among the first to issue a statement on the movie. He said the Church must continue to seek forgiveness from victims and to make amends. Terrence C. Donilon, a spokesman for O’Malley, said the cardinal wrote the statement himself and it was not issued as part of a coordinated campaign.

The advisory memo from the Conference of Catholic Bishops counsels dioceses to acknowledge the Church’s wrongdoing, as well as the role of journalists and victims in helping to uncover its harboring of pedophile priests. Bishops, it said, should “be open and transparent” about any abuse in their dioceses.

And it urges them to describe the policy changes that the American Church implemented after the scandal, including requirements that clergy, staff, seminarians, and volunteers working with children undergo background checks and safe environment training, and that children be educated on the issue.

“Remain vigilant,” the memo adds. “This is a reminder we cannot afford to become complacent.”


But Terence McKiernan of, an organization that tracks the abuse crisis, said the bishops have failed to fully address issues related to the abuse crisis that remain unresolved.

For example, he said, the bishops could have agreed to make lists of abusive priests available nationwide. Only about 30 of the 178 dioceses have done so, he said. Boston is one that has provided a list, although advocates complain it is incomplete. More than 2,400 abusive priests nationwide have never been named, he said, and it is impossible to know how many are still living.

“In a way, the movie is all about that issue: Who are these men who have done these things, how many are there, what are their names? Where have they worked? What have they done? It’s all about making a list,” he said. “I think it’s such an obvious thing to address for the bishops, especially those who haven’t made a list yet.”

He said the bishops should have acknowledged some of the more notable failures to enforce the Church’s new zero-tolerance protocols — in Kansas City, Mo., and Minneapolis, for example — and suggest ways the Church could do better.

One bishop who explicitly spoke of the Church’s efforts as a work-in-progress, rather than a closed chapter in history, was Archbishop Michael Jackels of Dubuque, Iowa. He posted a statement on the diocesan website that was remarkable for its bluntness.

“Would I prefer that this not be played out on the silver screen? Sure. The trailer alone is painful to watch,” he wrote. “But that pain I am sure doesn’t even come close to what victims, their families, or the Catholic faithful have to suffer from the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.”

He continued, saying that even though failing to report or remove an offender is rare compared with past practice, “it too still happens, and when it does, a shadow is cast on the church’s efforts to restore trust and to provide a safe environment.

“And so I suppose the story told by the movie bears repeating until all of us get all of it right.”

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