'Spotlight' cannot change the past, but it may change the future

When the movie "All the President's Men" was released in April 1976, the United States was still reeling from the Watergate scandal. The scandal had been a tremendous betrayal of trust, and the movie served as a testament to the effects of such a betrayal. It served, too, as a challenge to the public to remember the past while continuing to move forward.

The movie "Spotlight" has a similar message. The Oscar winning movie is about clergy sex abuse of children in Boston and the Catholic Church's cover up. The story is told from the perspective of the team of Boston Globe reporters and editors who uncovered the extent of the problem in a series of investigative reports. The movie memorializes the toll the investigation took on the reporters, but, more importantly, it serves as a tribute to the victims, not all of them survivors, whose lives were changed forever by an egregious betrayal of trust.

Challenged to remember, challenged not to repeat

Both movies are powerful indictments of systemic corruption that should not be ignored -- even 40 years later. But "All the President's Men" chronicled events from 1974, just two years before the movie's release. Watching it now, we can take comfort in knowing that the people responsible for Watergate were punished and that the country has remained intact.

The events in "Spotlight" took place more than a decade ago, but revelations of child sex abuse by the clergy continue to come to light. The institution has remained intact, but have the people responsible for the abuse and the cover up been punished?

People continue to come forward

In December 2015, a Missouri man filed a lawsuit against a priest and the archdiocese. According to court documents, the survivor was 15 years old when the abuse began in the mid-1980s. It continued for at least two more years. He was not the only child preyed on, either. Worse, other members of the clergy and the parish knew but said nothing.

Revelations of past abuse continue, but sexual abuse by priests is still an issue in the 21st Century. For example, a priest was dismissed immediately from his teaching position with a Catholic high school in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in 2013, after a student found a "disturbing" picture involving a minor on the priest's school computer. According to the Database of Publicly Accused Priests in the United States, the priest had taught at the school for almost 30 years.

Trusted authority figures continue to abuse

Like the reporters in "Spotlight," many Americans are aware that this kind of abuse occurs but not really aware of the scope of the problem. The nonprofit organization Darkness to Light (www.darkness2light.org) estimates that 39 million Americans are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, more than 1 in 5 children before they turn 8.

More than 30 percent of children who experience this type of abuse never tell a soul about it, Darkness to Light reports. It may take years for them even to recognize what happened as abuse.

When children pay the price, we all lose

Sexual abuse as a child can lead to a lifetime of struggling with psychological and emotional problems, difficulties fitting in socially and recurrent physical ailments. Abused children have more trouble in school than other children. As adults, these children may suffer from chronic depression or PTSD and may have difficulty supporting themselves financially. They are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.

The victim pays dearly, and the rest of us pay with the loss of human potential caused by child sex abuse.

For the victim, speaking up can make a difference. For the victim's parents or loved ones, knowing the signs of abuse can put an end to ongoing abuse and an end to that abuser's victimization of other children.

What does 'recovery' mean?

None of this is easy. An important part of recovery is regaining a sense of control. This may be one reason the Missouri man has decided to sue his abusers. In some cases, survivors sue to cover the costs of treatment, the costs of undoing the harm done to them. A lawsuit can be a way to regain control from those who perpetrate abuse.

At Holman Schiavone LLC, we work to take power back from the perpetrators and organizations that facilitated the abuse and give it to the survivors. Our years of experience in this area help us to understand the needs of victims and how best to advocate for them. Call us if you have a question or are looking for legal representation.