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.

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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.