We know that it can take years, sometimes many years, for great change to take place. Especially if this change is from the bottom up – the powerless pressuring the powerful. Change within the Catholic Church has been no exception.
Though cracks began to appear in the Boston Archdiocese in the 1990s and even earlier, it was not until a certain story appeared in the Boston Globe on January 6, 2002, that the time of troubles for Church officials began. The headline ran, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priests for Years.” As the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” vividly depicted, once the Globe decided to take hold of this bone, it did not let go. The paper, along with some of the victims themselves, and with activist groups such as Voice of the Faithful, and with the cooperation of the courts, was able, a year later, finally to push the leader of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, from his powerful perch. The perch to which he had clung until his clinging became for all practical purposes untenable.
As it turned out, this was just the start of unprecedented change in the Catholic Church – worldwide. Once it was revealed, in fits and starts, that priestly abuse was for more rampant and frequent than nearly anyone had imagined, the political pressure, dramatically if not radically to change the Church from within, never let up. Nor is now – almost two decades after the Globe story first broke – an exception. Though our eyes are trained elsewhere – on, say, Donald Trump – change in the Church continues apace.
Just this week was announced another big step forward. After years of refusing, the Vatican agreed to stop shielding priests from criminal punishment by secular authorities. The Church will not start to mandate information about abuse claims to be turned over to police, prosecutors, and judges; but it will no longer prevent Church officials from sharing information about abuse cases with civil officials. This will accomplish at least two things. It will further tear at the veil of pontifical secrecy. And it will hold priestly abusers to wider, to better, account.
This story is by no means over – which is precisely the point. Change driven from the bottom up is a process, almost always a long one. This most recent announcement mollified Church critics somewhat, but, predictably, properly, they’re clamoring for more. It is not clear, they say, how broadly this change will be applied. Nor is it clear that this change will be applied retroactively. Finally it is not clear that progress will continue – that the Church will, to take a single example, decide to defrock any priest who has abused a child. Still, those who started to scratch the ecclesiastical surface some two decades ago can be assured – the work continues.