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Adrian Walker

Keeping the spotlight on the Catholic Church

Terry Donilon, an affable man who is the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, audibly gasped when I asked what I considered a fair question:

“How much abuse do you think still exists in the Archdiocese of Boston?”

Donilon caught his breath and responded: “We think we have the safest entity in the entire Commonwealth,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying someone couldn’t still come forward with a claim from 30 years ago. That could happen. But we believe there is zero abuse going on. None.”

The question hadn’t been intended as a provocation. It had been on my mind since I attended a screening of “Spotlight,” the new movie depicting the Globe Spotlight Team’s 2002 coverage of the clergy abuse scandal. Over the course of its reporting, the paper found that roughly 250 priests in the archdiocese had molested children, often with the protection of Cardinal Bernard Law. It unleashed a wave of reporting by other news organizations that found major abuse scandals in other cities and many foreign countries as well.

The cases stretched back decades. So did the efforts of the church hierarchy to keep the scandal under wraps. The city was rocked by the revelations, and so was the church itself, internationally. Law resigned and was replaced by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who pledged to heal the damage.


The reporting prompted major changes. The Legislature quickly passed a long-pending law to make church officials mandatory reporters of sexual abuse. The church sold property to pay victims compensation for the abuse they had suffered. The sales included the Cardinal’s ornate residence on Lake Street. The archdiocese adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward abuse and trained church officials to recognize, and report, abuse.

But victims and advocates say the reforms have not gone far enough. While Boston, under a microscope, took many concrete steps, more needs to be done, they say.


“In general I think that there’s been tons of policies and procedures and protocols that have largely amounted to public relations,” said David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “This will continue as long as the fundamental and nearly unlimited power of O’Malley and his brother bishops remains in place, and it certainly does.”

One change advocates continue to push is extending the statute of limitations, so victims have a longer time to bring legal action against abusers. That has been a major issue in cases here and elsewhere, because traumatized victims commonly come forward years after their abuse has taken place. Caps on damages in suits against charities are outdated relics as well and need to be raised.

If anyone thinks the scandal is all in the past, they are mistaken. Just this year, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was criminally indicted for failing to protect children, and a bishop in Kansas City resigned after being convicted of a misdemeanor for negligently handling a case of abuse. While he no longer heads a diocese, he’s still a bishop, a prince of the church. Some prince.

O’Malley chairs a 17-member Vatican commission to address clergy abuse worldwide, and Pope Francis has also approved the creation of a tribunal that is charged with holding bishops accountable for failing to act on abuse. But skeptics aren’t sure either body has done much. Given the church’s track record, their skepticism is earned.


“There is a lot that needs to be done, and as far as I can see that commission has done nothing,” said Ann Hagan Webb of SNAP, the survivors’ group.

By its nature, sexual abuse is not the kind of problem that is ever “solved;” it will take constant vigilance to keep at bay the tragedies “Spotlight” captures. I want to believe that Donilon is right about the lack of abuse in Boston. But the sad reality is that there will never be a safe time to declare victory.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.