Catholic Church Sex-Abuse Survivor, Laid Off By Vatican Commission, Praises 'Spotlight'

Peter Saunders, who is on an involuntary "leave of absence" from the Vatican commission to which he was appointed by the Pope, tells THR, "All Catholics and all thinking people should watch this film."
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Peter Saunders

"It's been an overwhelming few days, but also a really encouraging few days because so many people are coming forward and so many people are offering support," Peter Saunders told me when we spoke by phone Tuesday morning.

Founder of the U.K.'s National Association for People Abused in Childhood, Saunders is a British survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest that took place decades ago when he was a child. In 2014, Saunders became one of two survivors appointed by Pope Francis to serve on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the group investigating the international scandal for the Vatican.

Saunders arranged a Feb. 4 screening of Spotlight — the Oscar-nominated film about Boston's Catholic Church sex abuse scandal — for the commission. While the Vatican itself has not commented on the screening, Vatican Radio last fall called the film "honest" and "compelling." After the screening, Saunders told the Los Angeles Times, "The film is extremely worrying about the cover-up of abuse in the Catholic Church, and I think it would be a good moment for the Pope to see it."

Two days later, the Vatican announced that the other commission members had voted for Saunders to take a leave of absence. Saunders — who in the past had been critical of both the workings of the commission and of the Pope's defense of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused of covering up clergy sexual abuse — refused to accept the commission's decision and requested a meeting with the Pope.

Saunders tells me that he feels his freedom of speech has been violated and that he is now "thinking about whether or not to remain on the commission," but that he has been heartened by those who have rallied to his defense for refusing to remain silent — including the co-writer and director of Spotlight. "When Tom McCarthy mentioned me by name at the BAFTA Awards, I was taken aback," says Saunders, who's a fan of the film, which he's seen twice.

Saunders is well aware of the Oscar race in which Spotlight now finds itself. "All Catholics and all thinking people should watch this film for an education," he says. "It would get my vote. It is a superb piece of film and makes a superb comment on the reality of our culture." He subsequently sent THR the following remarks about the film.

* * *

It’s not often that a Hollywood film connects to my own life profoundly, but as a survivor of abuse from a Catholic priest, I relate to Spotlight on a visceral level.

I admire the work of the Boston Globe reporters who didn’t cower before the church’s threats. (After all, the church uses its power to perpetuate the secrets, the cover-up, the obscurity. Keeping secrets is second-nature for the church, and keeping secrets is what has allowed — and continues to allow — pedophile priests to abuse children.) And I identify with the survivors who demand to be heard, who refuse to be quiet, because we cannot afford to be silent. I learn this every day in working with millions of survivors through my nonprofit, the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. To be blunt: The safety of Catholic children around the world is at stake.

Spotlight has brought this discussion back to the forefront in a way that’s making it difficult for the Vatican to ignore. It’s no longer possible to hide this systemic lesion when audiences see the film and begin to understand that reform is imperative. This film really does have the power to create demonstrable change that will protect our most vulnerable.

I spent a portion of my life hiding what happened to me; as an adult, I am empowered by the truth. I will remain loud until the Vatican takes concrete steps to ensure that abuse is ended once and for all, and I will not be patient about demanding this reform. Protecting children cannot happen at a glacial pace.

The din that Spotlight has contributed to around the issue of pedophile priests makes this an immediate, timely priority. When I left the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors earlier this month, my complaint was that transformation was not happening rapidly — and the church said I was being too strident in pushing for fast movement. But it only takes a moment for a child to be raped, and the church has had years to devise ways to stop the abuse. There is no more time to waste, and there is absolutely no need for posturing. As I’ve said before, when Jesus walked into the temple 2,000 years ago and found people up to no good, he didn’t form a committee to discuss reform. He just threw the bastards out.

Transparency in all institutions is crucial, and the church is no different. But as long as bishops are not required to report suspected cases of abuse, transparency is elusive. As Spotlight demonstrates, these stories must be brought into the light — for the sake of the survivors and for the sake of preventing future victims. Indeed, it's time for a worldwide summit to tackle this massive cancer in our midst.

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