Sister Veronica Openibo, a Nigerian nun and one of three women to speak at the conference, said the film had made her weep, especially at its conclusion, when a long list of cases and dioceses where abuse had occurred crossed the screen. “How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses, and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable,” she told the pope and 190 prelates from around the world. Sister Openibo pulled no punches, decrying a culture of “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency” inside the Church, and said its “culture of silence” needed to end for it to restore its credibility around the world.
Read: The Catholic Church’s battle between rhetoric and reality
A few days earlier, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a former top Vatican prosecutor of abuse cases and an organizer of the conference, also mentioned Spotlight. “We need to say thank you to all the media who have helped the Church come to awareness and also bring the stories, the narratives, of so many victims to light,” he said.
To my mind, Archbishop Scicluna is the most powerful Vatican official with a full understanding of the scope of the crisis (although what changes he wants to see and whether he has the power to make them is another question). His words—albeit tailored to an audience of journalists, rather than members of the hierarchy—mark a shift for the Vatican, a way of saying not only that something horrible happened, but that it was outsiders who raised alarm bells. There’s less talk now of how the sexual revolution caused clergy to carry out abuse, or that children had somehow led priests into temptation, as there was back in 2002. Vatican officials no longer call media coverage of abuse cases “calumnious attacks” on the Church, as some did in the 2010 flare-up of the crisis under Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI.
In the specificity of the procedures being discussed (but not necessarily adopted), and in the painful testimony of abuse victims being heard inside the walls of Vatican City, the conference marks a genuine change in how the Vatican and Francis are talking about an issue that has undermined the Church’s moral authority globally, financially bankrupted dioceses across the United States, shaken the faith of Ireland, seen prelates face civil justice in Australia and France, and seems to know no borders.
Read: Pope Francis is still equivocating on the sex-abuse crisis
Phil Saviano, who was abused by a priest as a boy in Massachusetts and whose testimony was part of the basis for the Globe’s reporting, told me he was surprised by Archbishop Scicluna’s citing Spotlight and thanking journalists. “That was pretty unexpected,” he said. “It must have been tough for him to utter those words.” Saviano is one of several abuse victims who met with Archbishop Scicluna and other Vatican officials this week—but to their dismay, not with Francis. Many victims believe that the Vatican is offering too little, too late.