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.
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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.