A child protection expert watches ‘Spotlight’

Here at Damaris Media we share an office with the folks from CharityOffice, including safeguarding specialist for charities Elaine Davidson. I wanted to hear her thoughts on the Oscar-nominated drama Spotlight, which tells the true story of the 2002 Boston sexual abuse scandal.

Hi Elaine, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Could you just share a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Hi Sophie! I have been an HR & Training consultant most of my life, but back when my children were pre-schoolers and I was juggling my career, I decided to open up my own Day Nursery. (As I didn’t have enough to do – joking – I needed good day care!). I began to get more involved, as the owner, in child protection.  We were having children placed from Children’s Services who were in temporary accommodation and fragile situations. That was a steep learning curve.

I was called in to give evidence at child case conferences where I saw firsthand what abuse and neglect could look like. It caught my heart and I’ve gone on from there to dedicate my professional life to child protection.

Before we saw the film, you told me that it was bound to make you angry. Was this your main reaction? How would you describe your emotions?

I thought I would be angry, but I also took a pack of tissues because I thought it might make me cry too. It does make me angry when I see lives damaged so profoundly. The film brought out a range of emotions. I was angered at certain points, mainly when listening to the children who were now adults. I felt my anger rising as a young man in one scene recalls the details of his abuse; the ice cream running down his arm whilst the priest touched him sexually.

As a Christian myself I also felt sick and upset that this turned many children away from God as adults, and left them with such a wrong picture of a loving God. I felt deep anguish at the damage done in God’s name. At the end I also felt disheartened watching the long list of cities, countries, where the abuse took place over such a long time, most of it preventable if it hadn’t been covered up – back to anger!

We have to be willing to ask the difficult questions. That’s a huge part of what kids need to keep them safe from abuse.

Any positive emotions?

I was also excited – didn’t expect that!  Excited that someone came in – new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) – and started to ask questions. Excited that justice might be on it’s way, excited that this might be the start of ending the hiddenness of abuse. We have to be willing to ask the difficult questions. That’s a huge part of what kids need to keep them safe from abuse – a culture where we are able to question what goes on and the kids know they can ask questions, or raise a concern and be believed. You give power back to children and young people when you give them encouragement and permission to speak out and protect themselves.

© Entertainment One, 2016.
© Entertainment One, 2016.

Spotlight has been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, among other awards – do you think it deserves this? Outside of your personal connection with the subject matter, how would you rate it as a film?

It was a film I would love to watch again. There was a lot to take in as there were so many great characters and layers to look at. It was handled really well considering the subject matter.  I think it was a brave film to make as I wasn’t sure the subject matter would be a big box office draw, but I’m glad it’s up for Best Picture. I believe it deserves the nomination – not sure if it will win but definitely should get recognition and be in the running.

One of the most shocking things about the film, to me, wasn’t just the extent of the abuse but the extent of the cover-up that happened. Were you surprised by this?

I wasn’t surprised, although it was shocking to watch how far it went. We are now in an era where historic abuse is hitting the news most weeks. The abuse uncovered in the UK regarding Jimmy Savile and others under Operation Yewtree was the beginning of the general public, and other agencies, waking up to the hidden enormity of child abuse and how often it is covered up and overlooked.

That choice is made so often: to protect the reputation of those in power above the value of children’s lives.

People who had a position of power in Boston held all the answers necessary to stop it, but chose to cover up for one another. The system of moving abusive priests between parishes under the guise of being on sick leave was normal practice. It worked for the church hierarchy,  and others condoned it by not challenging it. There were a lot of excuses and justifying: ‘the people need the church’, ‘let’s not throw out the good for a few bad apples’. That choice is made so often: to protect the reputation of those in power – be they celebrities, MPs, ordained ministers – above the value of children’s lives.

© Entertainment One, 2016.
© Entertainment One, 2016.

You work in a lot of church environments; do you think children in religious environments are particularly vulnerable to abuse?

A complex question to answer! Church should be the safest place to come and that’s what many assume. To put it in context, children are vulnerable to abuse across many different activities and situations in their lives, church included.  Church leaders, youth and children’s workers have such a powerful influence and position of trust that can be used to nurture and encourage a child. But those relationships can equally be used to establish trust and create opportunities to groom a child.

I think churches can be places where trust in the organisation and its people is so profound that the early signs may not be picked up as quickly. But this has been seen right across other organisations where adults were trusted even when there were signs of concern from colleagues and young people themselves as some didn’t think it was possible. If a church is not taking safeguarding best practice on board, ensuring they have the right policies, training and risk management in place, then those who want to access children will have an easier pathway of opportunity.

Church should be the safest place to come and that’s what many assume.

Churches are also unique in that they are open to all members of the public in their services, and because of that we don’t know who might be attending. So churches are vulnerable to unknown people coming through their doors. It is well-known in church safeguarding circles that sex offenders and others attend churches, many with mixed motives. If churches have the correct policies and procedures in place and work with Offender Management teams the risk isn’t high with known offenders; it can be, though, with those that have yet to be accused or convicted. Again, policies and procedures need to be embedded across all areas of activity in the church to ensure safety.

© Entertainment One, 2016.
© Entertainment One, 2016.

What kind of mindset-shifts do religious institutions have to undergo, in order to become safe spaces for children?

As I visit churches and charities to support their safeguarding provision, the difference I find with some churches is a lack of belief it will happen in their congregation, with their people. They say they know everyone really well, so is everything really necessary? The uncomfortable message that members of other churches who abused a child had all been ‘known’ for years and were trusted babysitters, youth workers and so on, can unsettle some church members quite visibly.

I understood that tension the journalists felt in the film.

Safeguarding is a difficult subject that people rarely want to visit, so I understood that tension the journalists felt in the film – the realisation early on that reporting this would upset people, that key figures in the city who could cause the newspaper issues due to their position of power. And that more personal worry too, about the impact on family members.

What I understand most, doing the job that I do, is that it’s extra difficult to call it in when it comes to the church. These are often long-established relationships. Volunteers, who are not professionals, are required to step up and report their concerns. To overcome this, I believe we need to train church volunteers and staff to explore what barriers they may have to overcome in order to to ‘call it in’. In other organisations there’s more distance in the relationships; at church you may have a disclosure from a child whose parents are your friends, or your concern is with a fellow children’s worker who got up at the front of church and prayed for people, or your kids went on summer camp with them. Very challenging: much easier to turn a blind eye and believe the best, to convince yourself not to raise a concern.

© Entertainment One, 2016.
© Entertainment One, 2016.

One character in the film says, ‘If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child.’ How did this resonate with you?

A ‘village’ today can be a community such as the one in Boston, or a care home for kids or the elderly, a sports club, or a school; a church.

Any group that sets itself up to provide a service for children, but believes the adult has the right to be believed above a child, risks a culture that puts adults’ reputations first.  Serious case reviews pick up on organisations not believing it can happen ‘in their backyard’ –  so they dismiss the signs and excuse things away.  All of the UK’s safeguarding messages now come back to a strapline that says ‘Safeguarding is Everyone’s Responsibility’. It’s not about an inner circle of professionals, it’s about all of us.

We need to speak up on behalf of children who can’t, who are often silenced by their abuser for years.

When I train any group, I always stress that this is to take everywhere with them. This is for the coffee shop, for the doctor’s waiting room, for the school gates, for  if you hear or see a neighbour mistreating their child. Wherever you see it, you are now the part of the community that must take responsibility to protect that child. We need to speak up on behalf of children who can’t, who are often silenced by their abuser for years.

© Entertainment One, 2016.
© Entertainment One, 2016.

As a writer, and as someone who isn’t an expert in the field of child protection, I’m interested to know your reaction to the conversations in the film about journalistic ethics. Even in writing a review of this film, I wanted to do it responsibly. How can the media react to child abuse in a way that’s actually helpful?

I think one of the things that we learn in safeguarding is that child abuse cases are are all different, multi-layered and rarely straightforward. There is a danger that the media can rush in for a quick story and make the mistake of stereotyping the families or the perpetrators in a deadline-focused, quick headline culture. So they need to do their homework well.

The media do have a great opportunity to raise awareness of abuse and its dangers, and to educate the public.

I respected that the editor and sub-editor in Spotlight were prepared to hold back from publishing until they had the right story, with facts they had checked out. All agencies such as the police, social services, the church, and especially the media, need to respect the privacy, rights and dignity of the families and children involved. They had control taken from them during the abuse, so we don’t want to treat them like their abusers did by silencing their voices and personal opinions and wishes.

The media do have a great opportunity to raise awareness of abuse and its dangers, and to educate the public. Personal stories need so much sensitivity, and journalists need to remember that though they themselves will move on after the story, the victims and their families will live with it for a lifetime.

You can read more about Elaine’s work, or contact her for more information, over at her site.

Published by

Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.