July 05, 2020
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Light From A Lens

In 2002, a spotlight fell on abuse by the clergy in Boston. Later, a film was made on it.

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Light From A Lens

“Church allowed abuse by priest for years.” That simple headline on  November 6, 2002, kicked off nearly 600 news reports by the Boston Globe newspaper, exposing the scale of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. A total of 249 priests and brothers were accused of abuse, and the investigation estimated that these men had violated over 1,000 survivors in Boston alone.

In 2002, a four-member team of journalists at the Boston Globe newspaper in the US, showed that clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston had been abusing children for years, and that the church had been suppressing those stories. It exposed not just the scandal but also the cover-up. Some of these cases were old ones but typically, as has been the situation for many complainants within the Catholic church, these cases had received insufficient media attention, police scrutiny, and interest from the church. They won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their work.

In 2015, the movie Spotlight was released, after over a decade since the original investigation. It served to introduce a new audience of people to the sordid side of the church. It recreated how the Spotlight team of journalists went about investigating the story for months.  

Speaking to BBC News, Mike Rendez, one of the original reporters on the team, said, “We thought there would be protesters in front of the Globe.” But in fact, the team and the newspaper received wide support even from within the Catholic community.

One of the reasons for this is because their investigation was based on documented evidence. And it was evidence that the church and the public could not deny—their investigation released secret court and church documents which detailed the sexual abuse. It made their story hard to break, and shielded them from being smeared with bias by the church as these were the church’s own internal documents.

They further corroborated their story by tracking the movements of nearly 70 priests who were implicated in sexual scandals, in Boston alone. The team found that many of these priests were simply transferred, promoted around the country or given leave, but were never truly punished by the church. There was never any strong message of deterrence sent to the clergy.

Spotlight’s story is based on an expose of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston by the Boston Globe. It covered not just the scandal but also the cover-up.

The film also received wide support. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said that it was not an anti-Catholic movie. It said in fact, that the movie gave “voice to the alarm and deep pain” experienced by the Catholic community. Likewise, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, told Vatican Radio that the clergy was being encouraged to watch the movie and ensure such abuse never happens again.

In India, the multiple cases of abuse have likewise been hushed up with the victims and complainants being socially persecuted and legally harassed. ­India still awaits its watershed moment. As the lawyer Mitchell Garabedian in the movie says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” It is this systemic persecution of victims that is seen in the terrible cases from Kerala. “In some states, the clergy has been given a lot of importance and power. In Kerala, the victims are harassed regularly,” says A.C. Michael, national coor­dinator of the United Christian Forum. It is also this systemic persecution across religions that gives us victims who never find justice. “There’s a defined connection in the West bet­ween celibacy and sexual transgression in the church but there’s celibacy and abuse in Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions too,” says John Dayal, former national president of the All India Catholic Union.After all these years, does the Catholic church in India have a mechanism in place to check sexual abuse? “There is a system. We put together an inquiry committee and hear both the accused priest and the victim. We try to give options to them both. There is a policy paper which we have developed for this. It was updated recently. But we never stop anyone from going to the police,” says Michael. “There should be zero tolerance for this behaviour. In the Catholic church at least, since the middle of the term of Pope John Paul II, there has been an effort to sensitise the church and condemn actions of abuse. There should be no excuse,” says Dayal. Indeed victims of such abuse from all over the world would agree and hope for a spotlight to fall on their story.

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