How ‘Spotlight’ impacted the legislative process

Bill went from going nowhere to becoming law in record time

SPOTLIGHT, BOSTON’S OWN OSCAR NOMINEE FOR BEST PICTURE, highlighted the courageous work of Boston Globe reporters and editors that exposed the Catholic Church’s handling of clergy sexual abuse. The Globe’s reporting forced the issue of clergy sexual abuse onto the Commonwealth’s agenda, both culturally and politically.

Since the movie focused elsewhere, few of the movie’s fans know the political impact of the Globe’s work.  I had a front row seat to Beacon Hill’s reaction to the Globe’s reporting as I’d been appointed the House chairman of the legislative committee that handled child abuse legislation just a few months earlier.  While the story may not be Oscar worthy, the speed with which Massachusetts state government responded to the scandal, after years of inaction prior to the Globe’s reports, is a reminder that the legislative process, designed to be deliberative, can move quickly at times even in the face of long-standing opposition.

As Spotlight portrays, the issue of clergy sexual abuse was not unknown when the Globe published the first of its many stories on the church’s coverup on Jan. 6, 2002.  For at least a decade, legislators had been filing bills in Massachusetts to include clergy in the Commonwealth’s mandated reporter law, section 51A of Chapter 119 of the Massachusetts General Laws.  This law, enacted in the 1970s, requires those who hold certain jobs, generally the jobs which require interaction with children and their families, to immediately report the abuse of a child to law enforcement.  Until 2002, religious officials, including priests, rabbis, etc., as well as their superiors, were exempt from this law.

A handful of victims of abuse by priests, like Phil Saviano who appears in the film, had been lobbying for these bills for years, testifying before the Legislature, trying unsuccessfully to get attention for the issue.  At the time of the law’s passage in the 1970s and through the following decades leading up to the Globe’s reporting, the Catholic Church had a full-time lobbyist on Beacon Hill and these bills that would have added clergy to the list of mandated reporters never made it out of committee.

Rep. Antonio Cabral

Rep. Antonio Cabral

In February 2001, less than a year before the Globe’s reporting on the sex scandal, I was appointed chair of the committee that handled these bills, the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs.  In July 2001, the committee redrafted a bill filed by then-Sen. James Jajuga to end the exemption for clergy and reported the bill favorably to the Senate.  Given similar bills’ fates over the years, we were not hopeful of passage.

But the Globe’s stories changed everything.  The Globe’s first story broke on Jan. 6, 2001.  On Jan. 23, 2001—only 17 days later—the Massachusetts Senate passed an amended version of the committee’s bill.  In the weeks that followed, the Globe published more stories about the scandal and advocates who had long resigned themselves to inaction on this issue began to hope that the politics of the issue had changed.

We began hearing from interested parties from many faiths, social workers, teachers, child advocates, and others.  On Feb. 27, 2001, the House passed its own version of the legislation and I began working with interested senators to find a compromise between the two versions.  On April 23, we reached an agreement that strengthened both chambers’ versions.  The final legislation added clergy of all faiths, indeed all religious institutions’ employees, to the list of mandated reporters, with a narrow exemption for information acquired solely in the confessional or its equivalent.  Even this exemption would not hold if relevant information later became available outside of the confessional.

The bill also gave clergy only 30 days after the new law took effect to report any knowledge they had of past child abuse.  The House passed the bill on April 25, the Senate engrossed the bill on May 3, and  then-acting Gov. Jane Swift signed the bill on May 6, finally closing the loophole that had given clergy the license to cover up the truth.

Meet the Author
Throughout the process, I was never contacted by legislative leadership about the bill.  The political process had worked just as it was supposed to: the press reported an important story, public opinion changed quickly, and the Legislature and Governor acted in a matter of weeks.  Thanks to the Globe’s reporting, countless children have been protected in the years since, in Massachusetts and around the world.  Here in Massachusetts, we learned that state government could act quickly and decisively despite long entrenched opposition.

 Rep. Antonio Cabral represents New Bedford in the Legislature.

  • So why did the child abuse enabling organizations, such as the church, get away free with the recently passed civil law? The enablers are just as evil and inflict injuries and damages as the perps. The church should be held accountable too. O’Malley lobbied against including institutions/organizations in the recent civil law for sexual abuse of children.

  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    The problem is that the citizens of Pennsylvania are not so lucky. Over the past several years, the last two Chairmen of the House Judiciary Committee have seen fit to block valuable, child-protection and reporting proposals from even a public hearing on the measures. State Rep. Ron Marsico and Rep. Thomas Caltagirone have consciously and deliberately refused to allow the public and legislative consideration of these valuable legislative proposals that would extend and/or eliminate the statute of limitations, both civilly and criminally, for the sexual abuse of children, regardless of where it occurs, public or private, religious or secular.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  • DrRosemaryEileenMcHugh

    I am so impressed by this article and by the work that Rep Antonio Cabral has done in his efforts to protect children from clergy sexual abuse. I am a physician. I have met many who have been sexually abused and raped by priests and religious brothers. As a Catholic, I am outraged that we lay people have exempted the clergy from being mandatory reporters. Why doesn’t the law require that all adults be mandatory reporters when a child is being sexually abused and raped? To report to police when a child is being abused is the adult thing to do, in my view, and let the police investigate further.

    Why do we give such respect and power to the leaders of the Catholic Church anymore, when we learn that it has been the popes, including St John XXIII, Pius VI, St John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis who have enforced the policies of secrecy and denial of the truth of worldwide clergy rape of innocent children on their fellow clergy, who are expected to lie under obedience to the pope, eventhough the popes have ignored the command of Jesus to protect the innocence of children?

    Clergy sexual abuse of children is still happening when the Church thinks it can get away with it. According to, Pope Francis protected clergy predators when he was the archbishop in Argentina and refused to meet with any of the victims and their families. I do not believe Francis would be doing anything now, if it was not for the courage of victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse such as Phil Saviano, Barbara Blaine, David Clohessy, Barbara Dorris, and many others, pressuring for some accountability. Instead of accountability, Pope Francis refuses to give up control to the police.
    A victim/survivor on the pope’s Commission, Peter Saunders of London, was removed from the Commission last week because he was concerned about the pope not listening to the people of Chile who are upset that the pope gave them a new bishop, who was known to have been complicit in the clergy sexual abuse of boys by his mentor, the notorious pedophile priest Fr Karadima.

    At present, the Royal Commission in Australia is investigating clergy sexual abuse and rape of children in all of the churches. In Ballarat, the hometown of Cardinal Pell, the Commission has found that at least 55 boys have committed suicide after they were sexually abused and raped by their priest and brother teachers. The boys must have felt abandoned by God and lost hope of their stories being believed, because of the denial of the truth by the predator clergy, by their superiors, and by the hierarchy.

    If parents care about protecting their children, they will be wise to no longer trust what the Church says it will do, since the Church has proven that it says what we want to hear and then abuses its power and does what it wants, thereby putting more children at risk of being raped and damaged for the rest of their lives. I kid you not. Something needs to be done to remove the diplomatic immunity from the Vatican and Holy See, in my view. The Church leaders do not deserve our trust anymore, since they do not even care to be mandatory reporters when they know that their brother clergy are raping children.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, MD, MSpir