Cardinal Bernard Law, left, celebrates Mass in Boston on Sunday, July 21, 2002. Law was archbishop in Boston when the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal exploded and resigned later that year. (AP Photo/John Bohn, Pool)

“Spotlight,” a new film about the Catholic clergy abuse scandal’s explosion in 2002, begs the question: How are things different in 2015?

Dozens of U.S. church leaders have in the past few days been offering answers in the form of public statements, with some primarily focusing on the survivors and others casting the scandal as fully in the past and framing the church as the leader today in a society that hasn’t fully dealt with the problem.

“Spotlight, which began playing in U.S. cities Nov. 6, tells the story of Boston Globe investigative journalists who broke the story. (The Globe’s editor at the time was Marty Baron, now executive editor of The Washington Post)

The range of views in the new statements – which follow a memo of talking points the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ sent to its dioceses in September — show the way the church still wrestles with how to tell its own story.

The movie “looks back at this historical past – 15 years and more as it dramatizes a newspaper investigation into abuse that occurred in the Boston area,” Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl wrote Nov. 2. “My wish is that other entities, like the public school systems, would attempt to do what the Church has done and offer the same level of protection to children in their care as we do.”

In the first line of a piece on “Spotlight” this weekend, Francesco C. Cesareo, chairman of the USCCB’s National Review Board, also expressed the view that the Catholic Church’s problems with sexual abuse echo those of society as a whole.

“Sexual abuse of minors is a problem that affects many institutions in our society,” wrote Cesareo, head of the body charged with making sure the church enforces the rules it created after the scandal exploded. “In 2002, the Catholic Church recognized that it was not immune to this issue.”

Survivor advocates have bristled in the past when church leaders have declared the abuse crisis in Catholicism over, or have tried to remove focus from the institution itself. When Pope Francis this summer met in Philadelphia with survivors and included some people whose perpetrators were outside the church, many survivors who spoke out were angry at what they saw as a diluting of responsibility.

Other statements, which were mostly from bishops, showed the lingering impact of the crisis and suffering of survivors.

“The sin and crime of sexual abuse sadly still happens. And while failing to report on or remove an offender is rare in comparison with past practice, it too still happens, and when it does a shadow is cast on the Church’s efforts to restore trust and to provide a safe environment,” wrote Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels. “May God have mercy on us and help us.”

Researchers agree that the landscape today is dramatically different from the era “Spotlight” depicts. The Catholic Church now spends tens of millions of dollars each year on child protection efforts — and spends roughly twice as much annually now as it did a decade ago, according to the USCCB’s annual reports. The number of new credible allegations is one-third of what it was a decade ago. And with clergy sex abuse scandals now blowing up in other countries, the U.S. church is considered a global leader in prevention efforts.

Some church officials are so sure of their prevention systems that last week Terry Donilon, the spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, seemed surprised when a columnist for the The Boston Globe asked him whether clergy sexual abuse was still a problem in the archdiocese. There is “zero abuse” going on today — “none,” he told the Globe.

Yet new scandals continue to surface. In 2011 a Philadelphia grand jury accused the archdiocese of not stopping abusers and said more than three dozen priests credibly accused of abuse or inappropriate behavior towards minors remained in ministry. This spring two bishops resigned in St. Paul-Minneapolis shortly after criminal charges were entered against the archdiocese for allegedly not removing a priest despite repeated complaints of misconduct.

Prominent survivors — including one on a special commission created by Pope Francis — have continued to criticize the church for spending millions in court against victims, including in statehouses where the church fights the lifting of statutes of limitations.

Last week the National Catholic Reporter reported it found the sex abuse crisis has cost the U.S. church $4 billion in the past 65 years, more than $1 billion higher than the commonly-quoted figure. The site also quoted a new academic study, in the Journal of Public Economics, that argues the scandal continues to cost the church $2.36 billion per year in charitable giving.

The impact on the church is complex. Polling by Pew Research shows that one-third of Catholics in 2013 ranked the abuse crisis the church’s most important problem, yet a tiny percent of those who left Catholicism cited it as the reason when asked in an open-ended way.

And the concept of the crisis changes over time, as the most heavily-hit generations age. In “American Catholics in Transition,” a book written by three sociologists of Catholicism, 7 percent of Catholics said they personally knew people abused by a priest. The number drops to 3 percent when asked of Millennials.

When the scandal broke in 2002, it was common for pundits and even some Catholics to point fingers at the church, hypothesizing that celibacy and gay priests were causes of the scandal. Since then, sex abuse scandals have gone public everywhere from the Boy Scouts to Orthodox Judaism, and stories surface constantly about abuse within families. Some Catholic leaders have argued that it was just the first, biggest institution where the phenomenon appeared, and that the problem is no better in other parts of society.

But this approach can be controversial.

Terry McKiernan, founder of a Boston-based abuse-tracking group bishopaccountability.org, said he doesn’t see child sex abuse as necessarily more prevalent in the Catholic Church. But he believes the reaction in the new statements about “Spotlight” reflect an ongoing problem.

“What if they had responded in a searching way? A radical way? Because there is so much left to do,” he said. “And I’d prefer they not take credit for something they did so reluctantly. It’s not something they innovated, they were forced into it.”

The statements follow the memo to dioceses from the USCCB’s office on child and youth protection. It warned staff who work with abuse survivors to be ready with support because the movie may remind survivors (in society, not just from clergy) of past trauma. At the same time, the memo urged church workers to create a communications strategy — including “speaking points for homilies” — and suggested  reminding Catholics of the enormous changes that have been made since the early 2000’s.

The memo opened with concern about how the movie will be perceived.

“In our experience, Catholics and others will take the movie as proof of what is happening today, not what happened in the past. Do not let past events discourage you. This is an opportunity to raise the awareness of all that has been done to prevent child sexual abuse in the Church. There is much good news to share,” it read.

In an interview, Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the child protection office, framed the film as an opportunity.

The memo was put together so dioceses could “be prepared, because victims may see it, and it could trigger things, and we need to be ready,” Nojadera said. Even though the movie is based in the past, “the pain of that is still very present, very real. In a way the movie is helping the church to remember, and to remind the church this is a mission they are going to be on for a long, long time.”

The memo cites church data showing the steady decline in number of accusations since the early 2000’s, but Nojadera said the numbers may hide abuse that remains uncovered.

“It’s like an iceberg; that’s what we see above. Lord knows how many are suffering or in pain,” he said. “The data we have is just our marker for what we have.”

Multiple dioceses issued statements using the words suggested by the USCCB memo: “We apologize for the grave harm that has been inflicted on you. Words alone cannot express our sorrow, shame and disappointment. So, it is our prayer and hope that through our actions you will find the healing you so richly deserve.”

 

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