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Public Administration and Institutions that Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 4 – A Tale of Two Movies

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
July 28, 2023

This column is the fourth in a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is on the unfolding crisis for U.S. public administration systems dealing with corporations that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect (the first column is here, the second here and the third here). This column explores the boundary between legitimate treatment of the overarching topic in popular media and recent efforts to hijack such concern for ulterior, counterproductive political purposes. Specifically, here I juxtapose two dramatic films: Spotlight (released in theaters in 2015) and Sound of Freedom (released in theaters this year but originally intended for release in 2018).

The subject of Spotlight is the reporting in the Boston Globe about Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston committing child abuse for decades while being shielded from justice by the Catholic Church. My prior columns in this series have spoken of this matter directly and with a very firm recommendation that corporate entities which knowingly enable child abuse and neglect, and then cover up these crimes, deserve a version of the death penalty. The movie portrays the facts realistically including the many years of efforts by Catholic Church leaders, acting in organized concert, to suppress the testimony of victims, move abusive priests to hide their behavior and deny legal authorities access to investigate these crimes. There are no shadowy, unnamed villains in this narrative, just established people in positions of authority doing everything they can to avoid accountability.

The subject of Sound of Freedom, which has become the “it” movie of the summer of 2023 in terms of generating massive amounts of commentary while greatly exceeding earning expectations at the box office, is the very stylized and exaggerated version of a federal government agent quitting his post to pursue a shadowy network of pedophiles trafficking in children out of Latin America. The themes in the movie have resonated with the repeatedly debunked Q-Anon conspiracy narratives of a demonic cult of pedophiles embedded within the federal government doing the same in Washington, DC. This dumpster fire of a mythology resulted in a terrible incident of a young man, armed with a semiautomatic weapon, entering a pizza parlor searching for children supposedly held in captivity in the basement (but the building does not have a basement). How no one died that day remains a mystery—all the conditions were present for another mass shooting or at least the death of the assailant at the hands of the police. The same twisted views also were on full display in the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol where one of the leaders is widely known as the, “Q-Anon Shaman.”

Whereas Spotlight’s purpose is to tell the story of a powerful institution abusing its power and harming the children under its care, the subversive intent of Sound of Freedom appears to be to further promulgate the core beliefs of Q-Anon while distracting viewers for actual child abuse scandals directly connected to Q-Anon’s Christian identity theology. As recent, accurate and careful journalism has reported from around the United States., there is a growing body of evidence of an epidemic of child abuse and violence against women within predominately White, ultraconservative, evangelical Christianity. Rather than chasing shadowy unnamed pedophiles around Latin America, our hero agent might have been better served doing an investigation on his own house of worship.

Most problematically, the views embedded in Sound of Freedom support the “bad apples” theory of child abuse and neglect. That is, the underlying institutions are sound but it is a few “bad apples” that have subverted the purpose. When you see widespread corporate malfeasance in the four institutions I previously have named, including the Boy Scouts of America, you must ask hard questions about the design of the tree. Most institutional analysts capable of taking a dispassionate look at what has happened to give us the events in Spotlight can see that the very design of the Catholic Church is at fault here. I am not talking about theological issues such as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but of management practices that create the perfect conditions for child abuse and neglect. One of these practices is that of leaving very young children under the control of people who turn out to be complete strangers to their parents for long periods of time without further supervision because someone else in authority says that is acceptable in the eyes of God. Well, that turned out not to be safe and now there are many adult victims still struggling to regain their lives. I will not deign to speak for God here.

A government that protects children from child abuse and neglect would subject all organizations that work with children to identical regulations designed to ensure constant surveillance, thorough background checks, training standards and ominous corporate penalties for failure regardless of the involvement of religion. That is, religious institutions cannot claim exclusion from such regulations by citing the putative separation of Church and State. The wellbeing of children always takes priority before any other purpose.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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