Q&A: Sexual abuse prevention a Vatican priority

The November release of the film Spotlight brought the 2002 sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston back to the, well, spotlight. Though the film does a good job of focusing on the efforts of the Boston Globe journalists to bring the scandal to light, it fails to address the many steps the Church has taken since then to combat sex abuse.

In March 2014, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, a special commission tasked with implementing policies and changes which will better protect minors from all forms of sex abuse. In September 2014, the Holy Father appointed Monsignor Robert Oliver of the Archdiocese of Boston as the new secretary of the commission.

Monsignor Oliver served in the Archdiocese of Boston during the 2002 scandal, so he knows how to deal with this pressing issue firsthand and brings invaluable experience to the Vatican. Monsignor Oliver is serving as the keynote speaker for this week’s National Safe Environment Coordinator’s Conference taking place in Denver.

Denver Catholic contacted Monsignor Oliver for an email interview ahead of his visit to Denver regarding what the Church is accomplishing in the way of combating sex abuse of minors.


Denver Catholic: You’ve been in the new position of the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for over a year now. Why was this position created, and what new policies and changes have you implemented to combat child sex abuse?

Monsignor Robert Oliver: Pope Francis instituted the commission with the goal of assisting the Holy Father and local churches to make the Church a safe place, by promoting local responsibility for the protection of all minors and vulnerable adults. The role of the secretary is to assist the president and the members in this important work. We are currently focusing our efforts on three primary areas: assisting conferences of bishops and conferences of religious with their guidelines for child protection, developing educational resources for local Churches, and providing resources to areas with particular need.


DC: What are your goals in this new position?

RO: The Guidelines Project is especially important. Each conference of bishops around the world is working with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on developing their policies and programs for child protection and providing for the healing and care of victim/survivors of abuse. The members of the commission and our collaborators are able to offer their assistance to bishops and religious superiors as these guidelines are developed and updated. We are also able to promote the sharing of best practices in these fields and particularly to help countries with fewer resources.

The second area we are currently developing is the training, education, and formation programs. Over the past year, we have provided programs to bishops’ conferences in the Philippines, Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland, Poland, New Zealand, Oceania and Central America, and in the coming year we plan to begin working with the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano (CELAM), and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).

Our third primary goal is to establish a foundation to provide resources for developing churches, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In addition to soliciting private donations, we will be applying for qualifying grants from child protection institutes and programs.


DC: What can other organizations learn from the Church’s approach to preventing sex abuse?

RO: The work of our commission extends to all children, not just those in Catholic families. As is becoming well known, the rate of the sexual abuse of children around the world is devastating, perhaps as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 9 boys.

Over the past 30 years, the Catholic Church has learned a great deal about child protection, and we have successfully implemented policies and programs that make a real difference. Around the world, we are now cooperating with a wide variety of religious, government, and non-governmental organizations. We are able to learn from them and to share with them the things that we have been doing which do indeed work, as well as the things we tried in good faith but which were less successful. There is much to be learned together and in cooperation with one another.

COMING UP: The story “Spotlight” doesn’t tell

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

It was late fall 2001, the news coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was slowing down, and a half-dozen investigative journalists were huddling in a Boston newsroom. They were sitting on the next big story.

Since early summer, the team had tracked down credible evidence of sexual abuse perpetrated by more than 70 clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston. None of the cases had ever seen the light of day. The story was big, but it wasn’t big enough. Not yet.

Click here for a FAQs sheet on “Spotlight”

According to the movie “Spotlight,” which recounts how the Boston Globe broke the clergy sexual abuse scandal wide open in 2002, editor Marty Baron wasn’t interested in giving the Church a black eye, he wanted much more.

In a key scene, Baron tells his team to “go after the institution,” and prove that “priests were protected from being prosecuted, that they were reassigned again and again.”

The movie ends as the Globe’s first exposé on the scandal hits the streets on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002. The headline reads: “Church allowed abuse by priest for years: Aware of Geoghan record, archdiocese still shuttled him from parish to parish.”

As the movie’s title suggests, the film “spotlights” the work of journalists to expose the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations in Boston at the highest levels. What it doesn’t do, however, is tell the story of what happened next.

After the revelations of the Globe’s investigations, Belleville Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, issued a formal statement expressing “profound sorrow that some of our priests were responsible for this abuse under our watch.”

By June of that year, the bishops of the United States decided that a coordinated policy and response was needed at the episcopal conference level, and they unanimously approved the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

It’s important to understand that before 2002, how a diocese handled sexual abuse allegations was left to the discretion of the local bishop (the Archdiocese of Denver first issued its Code of Conduct in 1991).

With the new charter, uniform procedures for handling sex abuse allegations were put into place for not only clergy, but also for lay teachers, parish staff, and any other adult that has contact with youth on behalf of the Church. In an unprecedented move, they pledged to provide a “safe environment” for all children in Church-sponsored activities.

Other main components included a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse, background checks for all Church employees, mandatory reporting to civil authorities, immediate removal from ministry of those accused, improvements in seminary formation, and most importantly, help for victims.

As of 2015, the U.S. bishops’ conference reports that 2.4 million adults and 4.4 million children have been trained to spot and report abuse. Nearly every diocese has established an office to coordinate safe environment training and to provide support for those abused. Every diocese reports all allegations to civil authorities, and works with law enforcement in cases of sexual misconduct. According to numbers released by the U.S. bishops, the Church has spent $2.8 billion to address the scandal.

Since 2003, the first year of implementation of the charter, the Archdiocese of Denver has trained more than 65,000 adults and continues to train 4,000-5,000 every year. Some 23,000 children are trained, and re-trained every year, at their current grade level.

The Archdiocese of Denver also partners with the State of Colorado in its efforts to combat abuse of children across the state. New this year is a state-wide phone number (1-844-CO-4-KIDS) that everyone can use to report all cases of neglect or abuse of children.

The Boston Globe series on the clergy abuse scandal was exactly what every journalist hopes his or her work will be—the catalyst that effects change in a system that is failing.

Why the movie “Spotlight” ignored the lasting effects of the Globe’s investigation is unclear, but what is clear is that much good has been done to correct past failings, and that’s a win for the Globe, for the victims, and for all of us.