Vatican panel kicks off meeting on sexual abuse by watching 'Spotlight'

A Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse gathered Thursday for a private screening of “Spotlight,” the Oscar-nominated film about abuse by Boston priests, even as Pope Francis came under fire for failing to act on the crisis.

The extraordinary screening was held on the eve of a three-day meeting by the commission, and was shown in the same church residence in central Rome where Francis — then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — stayed before his election as pope in 2013.

“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,” said Peter Saunders, a British anti-abuse campaigner who is a member of the commission. He was abused by a Catholic priest as a child growing up in London.

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Francis set up the abuse commission in 2014, appointing clergy and abuse survivors as members, and handing leadership to Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who took over the Boston archdiocese after the Boston Globe exposed rampant abuse by priests — events portrayed in “Spotlight.” The commission was charged with finding ways to better protect children from abuse by priests.

The pope was not reported to have been at the screening, which was closed to reporters. The Vatican has not officially commented on “Spotlight,” but Vatican Radio praised it last fall as “honest” and “compelling.”

Last year, Francis also set up a new Vatican tribunal to prosecute bishops accused of covering up for abusive priests.

Saunders, however, said he believes Francis’ good intentions were undone by his appointment last year of Chilean Bishop Juan Barros to the diocese of Osorno in Chile, despite “very credible” accusations that Barros covered up for a predator priest, Father Fernando Karadima, who was punished by the Vatican.

Last May, Francis told a group of Chileans to ignore Barros’ critics, who include survivors of abuse by Karadima.

“Think with your heads and do not be led by the noses by the lefties who orchestrated this whole thing,” Francis said.

“Francis has said phenomenally damaging and painful things about survivors,” said Saunders. “People in Chile now see the commission as a laughingstock, and I cannot pretend the commission means anything unless he sacks Barros.”

Marie Collins, a Irish abuse survivor and fellow panel member, has also criticized the Barros appointment. After Francis' disparaging remarks about “lefties,” she tweeted that she was “discouraged and saddened” by what he said.

In an interview last month with the National Catholic Reporter, Collins said it was “wonderful” the church had become more humble under Pope Francis, but added there was “still resistance” in the Vatican to fighting abuse.

Saunders said he had met the pope in October and asked him to attend the commission meeting, which will be held Friday through Sundayin Rome.

“It will be outrageous if he doesn’t attend, and I will say so — it will be the end of the honeymoon for Pope Francis,” he said.

Looking ahead to the three-day commission meeting, which follows two held last year, Saunders said he was not optimistic the experts would be able to change the way the church handles abuse.

“The last meeting in October was a non-event. I was told that Rome was not built in a day, but the problem is that it takes seconds to rape a child,” he said.

Kington is a special correspondent

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