The new movie “Spotlight” is taking a hard look at the 2002 events that seized headlines and had a profound impact on the Catholic Church: The Boston Globe investigation into clergy sex abuse.
One might think—based on some petitions circulating—that nothing has changed.
But everything has. Everything.
And while we’re throwing a spotlight on dark corners of the Church’s recent past, let’s not keep people in the dark about the rest of the story:
[B]ased on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. ‘We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,’ said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children … “Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in 10. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in 5 …
Almost all accusations against Catholic priests date from many decades ago, and indeed nearly half of all abuse accusations concern priests who are already long dead. In 2014, the “credible” accusations against priests numbered 6.
The incidence of sexual abuse by teachers in public schools today has been estimated to be “more than 100 times” that by Catholic priests, and there is alarming evidence of school officials covering up abuse and failing to report suspected cases to authorities.
The AP investigated this appalling phenomenon a few years ago and reported:
An AP investigation found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic. There are 3 million public school teachers nationwide, most devoted to their work. Yet the number of abusive educators – nearly three for every school day – speaks to a much larger problem in a system that is stacked against victims. Most of the abuse never gets reported. Those cases reported often end with no action. Cases investigated sometimes can’t be proven, and many abusers have several victims. And no one – not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments – has found a surefire way to keep molesting teachers out of classrooms. The seven-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students. At least half the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to their misconduct. The findings draw obvious comparisons to sex abuse scandals in other institutions, among them the Roman Catholic Church. A review by America’s Catholic bishops found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002. Clergy abuse is part of the national consciousness after a string of highly publicized cases. But until now, there’s been little sense of the extent of educator abuse.
The Catholic Church’s record of aggressive and proactive protective measures is unparalleled in any organization today. Since the beginning of the abuse crisis, the Catholic Church has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy in which any credibly accused priest is immediately removed from ministry.
No other organization even comes close to implementing the measures the Catholic Church has taken to protect children in its care.
In this regard, the Catholic Church in the 21st century is the model for other institutions to follow in the safeguarding of youth.
As The Guardian noted five years ago—and there’s no reason to think this reality has changed—the Church is doing something right:
The safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world. That won’t stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.
We can’t ignore the sins of the past. The agony and anguish and horror are real. But let’s keep some perspective, too.
And let’s also hold close to our hearts these words of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley:
“We have asked for and continue to ask for forgiveness from all those harmed by the crimes of the abuse of minors.” He said he has been “deeply impacted” by the histories of the “hundreds of survivors of clergy abuse” he has met with over the last 12 years. The cardinal said he is “compelled to continue working toward healing and reconciliation while upholding the commitment to do all that is possible to prevent harm to any child in the future.”