Psychiatric Spotlight on Child Sexual Abuse

By Ariana Nesbit
Psychiatric Times
April 13, 2016

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This line from the film Spotlight emphasizes the sad fact that when something horrible happens at home, most people don’t want to know about it. And—as psychiatrists—we know too well that those closest to the victim can “turn a blind eye.”

The 2016 Oscar winner for Best Picture does an excellent job of portraying the brave and thorough work of the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team known as “Spotlight.” The Globe would later go on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for the exposé that was the result of the investigation dramatized in this film.

Sometimes silence is loud. The film sheds light on the important issue of sexual abuse and illustrates the most damaging part of abuse—the failure of those who were supposed to protect the victim. Our experience living and training in Boston made the movie particularly disturbing to watch. We have savored the hot dogs at Fenway Park. We recognized the South End Buttery. We know the steeples rising amidst the rundown triple-deckers. How could its inhabitants have been blind to such a devastating problem for so long?

As a psychiatrist who specializes in paraphilic disorders in the Boston area and as a student of Ed Messner, MD—a psychiatrist whose patient was the notorious Father Geogun, who sexually abused children while assigned to various parishes in the Boston Archdiocese—I (Dr Sorrento) was encouraged to see the attention Spotlight brought to the subject of child sexual abuse.

The CDC estimates that approximately 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before age 18.1 Estimated average lifetime expenses per victim of child abuse are $210,012, costing the US billions annually.2 However, the financial expense of child sexual abuse is secondary to the emotional trauma and psychological damage to both the victim and society at large.

Public awareness of and concern about childhood sexual abuse has advanced scientific knowledge in this field. Sexual abuse research has identified both typologies of offenders and risk factors associated with sexual offender recidivism. About 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.3[PDF]

Offenders (ie, clergy) who are in positions of authority and to whom children are entrusted, use the relationship to groom and gain access to the victim, as the film depicts.

About the film
Spotlight follows the investigative team as it does the painstaking work of uncovering a network of abusive priests, the children they abused, and the system that concealed the abuses. There are 4 team members: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).

The film is set in 2001, when the Globe hires a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Baron asks the Globe staff whether they had followed up on a story they had published about a priest charged with sexually abusing children. No one can explain why there had been no follow-up, and the reporters are clearly uncomfortable when Baron suggests that they do so. This discomfort can be explained by the ties that each journalist has to the Catholic Church. It takes Baron, an outsider from Miami, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” to open their eyes to the horrifying truth.


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