|Dustin Hoffman poses for photographers at the Kennedy Center Honors gala|
in Washington, D.C, Sunday, December 2, 2012. Olivier Douliery | MCT
The Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” compels audiences to re-think institutionalized child sex abuse and the systemic protections for those responsible. Because of “Spotlight,” it is now impossible to sanction intimate relationships between little boys and clergy members without first considering child safety.
But what about lesser-known, secular or smaller organizations with a similar history? Instead of victims numbering in the thousands, what happens when the victim count is in the mere hundreds? Or dozens?
As the real-life Boston Globe Spotlight news team reported its story in 2002, a lawsuit against the American Boychoir School was working its way through the New Jersey court system with similar details — decades of abuse and systemic protection of perpetrators.
However, whereas the Catholic Church is being held accountable by Mark Ruffalo’s hard-charging investigative “Spotlight” reporting, the American Boychoir School is now fictionalized and celebrated on film via “Hear My Song” with Dustin Hoffman cast as choirmaster to an unwanted and troubled young boy.
After the original film “Boychoir” experienced limited release in the United States, Hallmark acquired the film. Re-named “Hear My Song,” a national CBS broadcast was planned for this weekend — in April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
I should not have to point out that this was a bad idea. But I did point that out. And many others did, too.
Descriptions of child sex abuse at the American Boychoir School are public knowledge. Accusations began in the 1950s, reached a nadir of complicit behavior in the 1960s and 70s, and continued into the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 2000s, a court case attempted to hold the school accountable.
In those court documents, the school argued its nonprofit status absolved responsibility for rape. When that approach was unsuccessful, administrators argued that a 12-year-old boy could consent to sex with his teacher — and was himself negligent in not reporting the relationship.
The school’s history is now accessible via any basic Google search, and when my husband studied there from 1988-90, he attests to spending 30 months afraid to sleep because of the sex abuse he saw, heard, feared and experienced at the staff, teacher, student and trustee levels. He began drinking coffee at age 11 to remain awake and vigilant at night.
Hallmark’s “Hear My Song” features the American Boychoir School, but it does not mention sex abuse in its story of a troubled and unwanted young boy with vocal talent taken under the stern, protective wing of Hoffman’s choirmaster.
Make no mistake: When I learned CBS decided to pull the film from its Saturday night lineup, my family was elated. We were relieved and thankful, too.
But would producers ever think of overlaying this same narrative onto the Catholic Church? Place the story within a Penn State locker room shower with a football coach?
There would be a pause to question the sensitivity, taste and wisdom. These pauses help keep kids safe.
I once watched a singer pause onstage to banter with the audience mid-song. He explained the progression of the bluegrass-style lyrics. “We’ve done the sinning part,” he said. “But we haven’t atoned yet.”
Pausing for safety — and atonement — is important.
In 2014, when “Hear My Song” (then “Boychoir”) was initially promoted, a former American Boychoir School dean was arrested for sexually assaulting a little boy.
Refusal to accept responsibility
To date, the American Boychoir School has not addressed the needs of victims outside a courtroom. No victim resources are made easily available to alumni members. No school official has ever publicly denied my husband’s experience — or the experience of many others, but no school official has ever accepted institutional responsibility for the abuse either.
To my husband’s knowledge, just one perpetrator during his time at the school was ever punished. A social studies teacher (whose assault my husband recalls as so violent it likely required surgery for the victim to heal) was fined $430 and placed on probation in 1991.
This absence of accountability sends the message to victims like my husband that his experience does not matter. Or, it matters less than portraying a happy story on film. Worse for him, though, was the recruitment tool and potential revenue generator “Hear My Song” and its national broadcast would have provided to the institution that oversaw his abuse.
Some might say, “But it happened a long time ago.” Or, more insultingly, “The current students are safe.”
To which, I ask how many boys must be raped and how violently, to cause concern? How much time must pass until sexual assault ceases to matter? What specific body parts must be touched? Does the size of the organization dictate the public response?
Instead of relying on these questions though, I suggest a simpler metric. “Given a history of sexual violence, what has an institution done to support the victims?”
The American Boychoir School planned to host a “Hear My Song” viewing party to celebrate themselves this weekend. Given the horrors my husband experienced while entrusted in the school’s care, I had the obligation to ask potential viewers to pause before watching.
Thanks to a decision to pull this movie from national broadcast, I no longer have to.
The American Boychoir School has done its sinning; “Hear My Song” does not help it atone.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey lives in Gorham. Her book, “Dirt Roads and Diner Pie: One couple’s journey toward healing from child sex abuse” (Central Recovery Press) is forthcoming in August.