A panel of journalists and experts involved in the reporting of widespread child abuse in the Catholic Church reflected on their experiences before and after the 2002 Boston Globe report, which was documented in the film “Spotlight” at an event in Lohrfink Auditorium on Wednesday.
Lecture Fund member Aiden Johnson (COL ’19) moderated the discussion between former priest and author Richard Sipe, canon lawyer Tom Doyle, former Boston Globe editor and current Washington Post editor Martin Baron, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Spotlight team member Mike Rezendes and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops National Review Board member Robert Bennett (CAS ’61, GULC ’64). Approximately 300 students attended the event.
“A Spotlight on the Church: What This Means for the Ordinary Catholic,” which was sponsored by the Lecture Fund, was introduced by Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., who began with a reflection on his experience with the child abuse crisis before explaining the role of the ordinary Catholic.
“We certainly had no idea of the scope of this. We really didn’t understand just how deep it is, although we could feel in those very early days what a terrible betrayal this was of trust and the kind of justice the church talks about,” Carnes said. “We have so much more to do. We are just starting to scratch the surface with this.”
Carnes said he has realized the church needs outsiders to prevent complacency.
“The church, like so many other institutions, fails to live up to its calling when it starts to become, as Pope Francis has said so many times, self-referential. It’s point of reference is itself,” Carnes said. “This can lead to the misperception that we are our best judges. By our own standards we can have a sense that in some way secrecy would be better.”
The role of outsiders is to provide an independent perspective of the church’s role, Carnes said. He also stressed the church’s need to ask for forgiveness for betraying believers’ trust.
“The sin of clerical abuse is a sin for which we can never fully apologize. We need to beg forgiveness from survivors from abuse, from their families, from the people we have driven away from the church when they heard about this, from those who turned away from God when they could not believe,” Carnes said. “We ask forgiveness from God himself. In some sense, the lives of priests in my generation need to be lives of penance, lives of constantly seeking some kind of atonement for this. It’s part of our mission.”
Following Carnes’ remarks, the panel discussion was divided into analysis of the process before, during and after the Spotlight team’s investigation into child abuse in the Boston Archdiocese.
Doyle said his legal involvement in investigating the church abuse coverup originated when a family in Louisiana filed civil charges against the Catholic Church.
“One of the families that was brought into this, that was signed up for an ironclad confidentiality agreement, backed out and went to court,” Doyle said. “Criminal charges were filed and the media got ahold of it and a very brave, insightful, Georgetown graduate named Jason Berry [CAS ’71] wrote a series of articles for a local newspaper in the Louisiana area.”
Doyle said he knew how terrible the situation was when he met the family of a child abuse victim in Louisiana.
“My life was changed when I saw that little boy and knew what had happened to him. I knew that it was not just wrong, it was evil,” Doyle said. “I cannot find words in the English language that can adequately describe the pain that I saw in these men and women when they tried to describe what went through their hearts when they first learned that their little boy or little girl had been sexually violated and even worse by a man that they had trusted with everything.”
Rezendes said the church must have been aware of what was happening.
“This happened countless times, and at one point, we got Cardinal Law’s personal calendar and we saw that he had personally met with dozens of these priests and essentially forgiven them and reassigned them. How could they not know? Of course they knew,” Rezendes said.
Baron said The Boston Globe’s work in gaining access to all the Catholic Church’s documents through a court motion was a particularly important moment.
“We were able through that motion, I think it is important to say that we were able to get the entire church documents so that was something that was sort of a treasure — for us journalistically but also absolutely critical in terms of establishing a precedent as you were saying, so you could actually see how the church were officials were responding as risk control people, how they were responding almost like an insurance company, form letters essentially,” Baron said.
Doyle said it is important to remember the victims all represent the church.
“I say see those people over there, the victims? They are the church my friend. And don’t you forget it. That’s the core issue. These people who’ve been violently abused, their parents, their friends, their associates, those who defend them, those who support them, they are the body of Christ,” Doyle said.
Hoya Staff Writer Elisabeth Neylan contributed reporting.
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