ON SUNDAY, the film Spotlight is up for five Oscars. It tells the story of how The Boston Globe first exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s policy of moving clergy from one parish to another to hush up the scandal of paedophile priests.
Earlier this month, there was a private showing of the film for the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Only six of the 17 commissioners showed up for it. Pope Francis did not attend.
One of those who did was Peter Saunders, the abuse survivor who was the commission’s most publicly outspoken member until he was recently asked to leave the commission. Mr Saunders has since said that, at the end of the Vatican screening, one commission member concluded: “We need to look after our priests.”
It was a revealing response. Most viewers conclude that it is the children who need looking after. Another member told Mr Saunders: “The Pope is more interested in priests who are falsely accused.” If that is true, it explains why Francis is moving so slowly over child abuse.
The day after the Oscars, Cardinal George Pell, the third most important man in the Vatican, will give evidence to Australia’s Royal Commission on sex abuse. Cardinal Pell has previously said, ineptly, that the Church is no more legally responsible for predator priests than a trucking company would be if a driver molested a woman.
Abuse survivors in Australia call him indifferent, cold, and callous. For many in the Vatican, the last straw was when Mr Saunders added that the Australian Cardinal had shown “an almost sociopathic” disregard for victims.
Cardinal Pell, aged 74, who vehemently denies all allegations, says his heart is too weak to allow him to fly. So he will give evidence by videolink. His failure to travel has aroused huge indignation in Australia, and a public appeal has funded victims to travel to Rome to be in the room when he testifies.
TV networks are broadcasting an abusive song by the satirist Tim Minchin, accusing the Cardinal of being hypocritical and cowardly “scum”. And a Murdoch tabloid has reported that police have been conducting a year-long investigation into claims that CardinalPell committed “multiple offences”, going back to the 1970s, when he shared a house with Australia’s most infamous paedophile priest — a man now in jail for assaults on 54 children. Cardinal Pell says that police have not contacted him about the allegations.
Righteous or self-righteous indignation is hardening positions on both sides. Victims’ supporters are abandoning due process. The presumption of innocence seems to have been replaced by the atmosphere of a witch-hunt. But the Church is withdrawing into its old silence. A Vatican source was recently briefing that clergy are reluctant to report suspicions of abuse because governments and the police in some countries are so hostile. Meanwhile, in the United States and in India, priests suspended after allegations are being restored to ministry on the say-so of closed tribunals, at both diocesan and Vatican levels.
The tragedy is that tackling predator priests and cover-up bishops — and, above all, protecting vulnerable children — seems to be becoming more rather than less difficult.