‘Spotlight,’ shadows and speaking truth on child sexual abuse

Rachel McAdams, from left, as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian dArcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, “Spotlight.”
Rachel McAdams, from left, as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian dArcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, “Spotlight.” AP

You may not recognize the superheroes in the recently released movie “Spotlight.” They don’t wear capes, battle space aliens or have superhuman powers. In most situations they would be described as just “regular people,” like us. That’s what makes this movie so important. It reminds us of our responsibility to keep our children safe.

The superheroes in “Spotlight” are the investigative journalists and brave citizens who stood up to a system that thrived on secrecy and intimidation. What they do, and do well, is ask hard questions and keep looking until they learn the truth. In doing so, the characters in this movie about the Boston Archdiocese child sexual abuse scandal teach us all a valuable lesson about preventing child sexual abuse from ever occurring in the first place: We don’t allow it to exist in the dark, wrapped in secrets that are fostered by adults who are unable, or unwilling, to ask hard questions about what they know is happening right in front of them.

If the role adults play in preventing child sexual abuse isn’t clear already, let us be clear here, now: Preventing child sexual abuse is not the responsibility of children. It’s the responsibility of the adults who live in the neighborhoods and communities where those children live.

As adults, we have to be willing to face things that make us uncomfortable. As we see in “Spotlight,” we also have to be willing to confront the institutions that prefer that such actions are ignored. What the movie shows us more than anything is that many adults, and many people in power, knew exactly what was going in Boston and, as it turns out, in countless communities across the nation and the world. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak the truth and expose the situation to the light. With disastrous consequences for the children involved, both in the short and long term.

A significant public health issue

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified child sexual abuse as a significant public health issue. In addition to the immediate physical harm, victims suffer toxic stress that results in multiple long-term negative physical and mental health problems as well as a host of social problems that affect us all. It is a problem, however, that is preventable, as “Spotlight” also shows us. When we speak up and expose these situations to light, we transform the lives of children and the adults they will become, as well as the neighborhoods they call home.

We all should use this movie as an opportunity to discuss the issue and learn more about what we can do to ensure all children grow up in safe, stable, nurturing homes and communities. There are effective programs and strategies all over our state. The N.C. Coalition for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, facilitated by Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, is developing a realistic, sustainable and evidence-based statewide plan to prevent child sexual abuse. Darkness to Light, an evidence-informed training that teaches adults to prevent and recognize and react responsibly to suspicions of child sexual abuse, is partnering with YMCAs in local communities. Child advocacy centers help children and families where abuse has occurred and are available in many North Carolina communities as well.

We encourage you to speak up and ask the hard questions when something doesn’t seem right. If you suspect a child is being abused, don’t hesitate. Call a child advocacy center or law enforcement. If you suspect the abuser is a parent, you can also call your local department of social services.

By tackling this issue, “Spotlight” does something amazing and rare. It takes a story that could be lost in emotion and pain and portrays how doing the right thing, being dogged about it and ignoring the pressures to turn away from the real story can be just as powerful to watch as any superhero in a cape leaping over a tall building.

Jim Hmurovich is president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America. Sharon Hirsch is president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina.