At the end of Spotlight, a list of hundreds of cities in the U.S. and around the world in which major cases of clergy sexual violence have been uncovered fills up the screen. You can literally hear the audience gasping. What happened in Boston was far was from isolated, and although the film depicts events from 15 years ago, recent reports on continuing Vatican policies – like no mandatory reporting of clerical sexual violence to civil authorities for bishops and allowing convicted sexual abusers to continue to serve as priests – show that this story is far from over.
By some estimates, the number of victims of clergy sexual violence over the past three decades is in the hundreds of thousands and on the rise, as more survivors come forward and civil authorities begin investigations in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The Vatican’s own experts have said there are as many as 100,000 cases in the U.S. alone. All of these cases follow the same pattern of cover-up and protection of Church officials, a pattern that continues to this day.
Pope Francis has pledged “zero tolerance” for sexual violence in the Church and spoken about the need for accountability by bishops. So far, however, this rhetoric has not been matched by action. For instance, in 2014, recognizing the gravity of the situation, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UN Committee Against Torture issued a series of recommendations on what Pope Francis can and must do to end this epidemic of sexual violence, including:
(1) Immediately remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from assignment and refer the matter to relevant law enforcement authorities for investigation and prosecution;
(2) Hand over files containing details of cases of sexual violence to civil authorities for investigation and prosecution of abusers as well as those who concealed their crimes and knowingly placed offenders in contact with children;
(3) Make reporting to civil authorities mandatory everywhere the Catholic Church operates;
(4) Develop comprehensive procedures for the early identification of child victims of sexual and other forms of abuse;
(5) Ensure accessible, confidential, child-friendly and effective reporting channels for children who are victims or witnesses of sexual abuse, and ensure child victims and witnesses of crimes are provided with unconditional psycho-social support for their rehabilitation and reintegration.
The Holy See’s initial responses to the recommendations were galling enough: it claimed to be responsible only for what happens inside the .17 square miles of Vatican City and nothing else, and argued that sexual violence doesn’t rise to the level of torture, continuing the Church’s history of belittling the physical and mental harm suffered by the victims. Its recent actions, rejecting mandatory reporting and reinstating known offenders, send the clearest signal yet that Francis’s Vatican no less than Benedict’s is simply not serious about ending clergy sexual violence.
Spotlight is a reminder that the Church cannot be left to police itself when it comes to clergy sexual violence – and what happens when communities stand by, silently. Survivors have long led efforts to bring real change and accountability. Help uplift their voices by signing this petition urging Pope Francis to follow the UN recommendations.