Spotlight is a motion picture with a purpose: to deliver the truth of how every adult that could have halted the sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese did not. Children were betrayed by priests, bishops, parents, lawyers, journalists, and the buddy culture of men in power. The message: these kids did not have a chance, and it is no wonder they are angry and suffer from severe post-traumatic stress, among many other related problems.
After one walks out of the theater, the inevitable next thought is: we must do better by our children. The same thought has entered Pennsylvania’s consciousness following the three Philadelphia District Attorney grand jury reports on abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and the Attorney General grand jury reports on abuse at Penn State, and in the Altoona-Johnstown Archdiocese. Yet, one continues to see deep frustration on the faces of survivors from all corners of Pennsylvania as the bishops hit high gear lobbying against the victims’ access to justice through statute of limitations reform.
The Reports tell us that adults in power shredded children’s lives. True. Only the bishops and their insurers, however, have routinely leveled an additional, knock-out blow to each victim, either through scorched earth litigation tactics or by lobbying to keep the perpetrators from justice. The trauma these survivors (and their families) already suffered is compounded by the litigation and legislative tactics of the bishops.
The sex abuse alone can cause lifelong debilitating effects, including PTSD and depression, unemployment, alcohol, drug, or sex addiction, and suicide. Children can’t process sex abuse when it happens, and it is simply a scientific truth that multiple factors including shame, guilt and changes in their neurobiology delay victims’ disclosure of abuse until well into adulthood.
The Catholic survivors are subjected to traumatic betrayal twice. First, when the sexual abuse occurs. Second, when society locks them out of the courthouse, and the padlock stays in place because the bishops lobby to keep the doors locked. When a survivor finally has the support and courage to come forward, it is devastating to check on legal options only to learn that the doors remain padlocked, because elected officials defer to the hierarchy that betrayed the victims in the first place. This endless betrayal is a potent destroyer that also can and has resulted in the destruction of survivors’ lives as well as the lives of their families.
Penn State officials’ handling of the sex abuse by Jerry Sandusky is no model of moral best practices except, perhaps, when compared to the bishops’ merciless treatment of abuse survivors who wish to bring predator priests to justice and dare to seek their day in court from all those who caused them to suffer. Penn State did not respond to learning about Sandusky’s horrific behavior by mounting a public relations campaign to smear victims and hire lobbyists to make sure victims couldn’t get to court. You don’t find Penn State lobbyists lurking at press conferences and hearings backing the bills that would revive expired statutes of limitations. They aren’t quoted about why it is so unfair to hold Penn State responsible for the abuse on its campus and in its showers. By and large, Penn State sat down and settled with the victims instead of dragging them through the entire legal process. If all responsible institutions were to do that, and accept their responsibility for the costs of the abuse (and it is only fair those costs are shifted from victims to the ones who caused the abuse), the survivors would only have to deal with one excruciating round of trauma instead of the relentless triggering that is inherent in the current bishops’ choice of callous disregard followed by either hardball litigation tactics for the small number in statute and cold-hearted lobbying against every other victim’s (whether Catholic or not) access to justice.
The Catholic bishops have locked themselves into a position of rigid opposition to victims in the legislatures and the courtrooms. Who exactly has benefited from that? To be sure, the insurance industry that enjoyed collecting premiums for abuse that was never disclosed. But the industry also has sunk untold millions into lobbying against legislation that is inevitable instead of using those resources to improve future protection of children. The irrefutable logic of SOL reform will inevitably work its way through state after state. If the insurance industry were to set and enforce high standards for employers on child protection instead of cancelling sex abuse coverage altogether and resisting justice for the abuse that already occurred, we might avoid repeats of these horrific scandals. That is how risk could be managed intelligently. Right now, the insurance lobbyists are part of the problem as they aid the bishops in their hide-under-a-rock strategy.
So how can we understand the bishops, and the legislators who accede control over child protection to them, like Pennsylvania’s Rep. Ron Marsico? Is their narcissism and sense of entitlement so great that they are willing to continue to traumatize abuse victims for the sake of the Church’s reputation and finances? Are these men the paragons of virtue and morality that the Church would have us believe? They are clearly in conflict with Pope Francis’s admonition in Philadelphia when addressing clergy sex abuse victims: “I pledge to you that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead. Clergy and bishops will be held accountable when they abuse or fail to protect children.” It is likely that they are, unlike Pope Francis, all too similar to ordinary leaders corrupted by power and tragically blind to their constituents’ pain.
Members seem to fear voter backlash if they side with survivors, but when a poll was conducted in New York asking Catholics and other voters if they favored SOL reform, solid majorities sided with the survivors and SOL revival. The poll numbers are reinforced by the fact that the primary and most vocal window sponsor in New York, Assemblywoman Marge Markey, has been repeatedly re-elected with large margins—despite the bishops’ robo-calls against her.
It is time for the trauma to end and the healing to begin, and both demand the justice that can only be gained through reviving expired civil statutes of limitations and, going forward, eliminating the criminal and civil statutes of limitation for child sex abuse. Then society can answer the call of Spotlight to actually protect our children.
Steven Berkowitz, M.D. specializes in child traumatology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.