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"Spotlight" and Cadet Protection

Posted on February 29, 2016 at 12:00 AM by Curt LaFond


Oscar’s Best Picture Illuminates the Risks of Youth Sexual Abuse and Suggests Strategies for Keeping Kids Safe


If you want to understand why cadet protection is such an urgent matter, watch Spotlight, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and Rachel McAdams.


The film is primarily a drama about an intrepid team of newspaper reporters who uncovered the Catholic priestly abuse scandal in Boston (among other places), but it also happens to illuminate the conditions that make sexual abuse possible, especially in out-of-school settings.


Spotlight is a good opportunity to think about abuse and the standards of practice that can mitigate the risks involved in any adult / youth mentoring situation. Spotlight makes all the demons visible. Some lessons for adults who serve youth include:

  • We see that abusers target the most vulnerable youth. Victims in Spotlight were kids from single-parent and low-income families who desperately needed adult role models. We learn that the abusers – men greatly respected for their priestly vocations – were unhesitatingly entrusted with frequent one-on-one contact with youth. People tend to respect clergy, teachers, coaches, and the like. The instant trust accompanying those job titles is what abusers count on.  


  • We are confronted with the fact that leaders who publicly preach virtue can and sometimes do act the opposite in private. When a report of abuse comes to light, it is common for people who knew the abuser to react with shock. “I never would have suspected him . . .” and, “Not him, he was such a decent man . . .” are common remarks.
  • We hear victims recount the process that their abusers used to groom them. Spotlight makes viewers understand that the ice cream cones given to a special altar boy were part of a calculated ruse for softening-up a victim. The implicit lesson here is that instead of over-trusting people with spotless records, the safer course is to have everyone who works with kids comply with two-deep leadership principles, no matter how beloved they are.
  • We watch the reporters conduct their investigations and share their horror when it’s shown that church officials chose to ignore reports of abuse and/or handle them discreetly, which only enabled those known abusers to strike again and again as they were reassigned to different parishes. It might seem compassionate to shield the victim from having to testify and thereby relive the abuse. In reality, silence lets the abuser maintain his good reputation, giving cover to serial predators.
  • And not least of all, we come to understand why the problem of child sexual abuse is so much more widespread than anyone would want to believe. Gut-wrenching scenes dramatize the fact that victims often experience feelings of (unwarranted) shame or guilt that prevent their coming forward until years later.


Fortunately, a close viewing of Spotlight will leave CAP members with a renewed confidence in our Cadet Protection Policy (CPP), which was revised in 2015. The CPP program is built upon a principle of two-deep leadership; one-on-one contact between adults and cadets is greatly avoided, and in the few instances where it is permitted, is strictly controlled.


CPP works by limiting the would-be abuser’s ability to isolate a potential victim, and by frustrating that abuser’s attempts to gradually groom a victim through favoritism, repeated one-on-one contact, gift-giving, and the like over time.  And while our adult volunteers are fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check – which prevents known perpetrators from joining CAP – Spotlight shows that background checks cannot prevent the yet to be caught abuser, like so many previously beloved priests, from harming kids.


Spotlight rightfully celebrates the real-life Boston Globe reporters who blew open the hideous scandal of sexual abuse in the church. The filmmakers themselves deserve the acclaim of youth-serving professionals for educating the public on basic facts about child sexual abuse and some strategies for preventing it. Spotlight is not just a compelling movie in the tradition of All the President’s Men, but is a great public service, too.


- Curt LaFond



Spotlight is rated R for language, including sexual references.

Photo (C) Open Road Films, 2015.



Categories: Character

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