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Sexual Abuse, Lies, and Schools: Screening 'The Hunt'

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A new movie out today explores the perils that await schools in reacting to claims of sexual abuse. It's fictitious, but haunting.

"The Hunt" is an uncomfortable movie. Let's just get that out there. Magnolia Pictures, the film's U.S. distributor, bills it as disturbing. And how.

It starts off as a school administrator's worst nightmare: A quiet, resolute kindergarten teacher named Lucas exhibits a close friendship with his young students. But one of the girls in his class, Klara, develops a crush, and when he tells her very clearly that it's inappropriate, he leaves her broken-hearted. At which point she suggests to the principal that Lucas sexually abused her.

The principal, Gerthe, takes the child's lie seriously. She contacts a counselor. She then calls the police. She quickly informs the other parents. She responds, in effect, almost exactly as people expect administrators should.

To compare: After the Steubenville, Ohio, this March, in which a judge found two high school football players guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl, the prosecutor sought further investigation into whether and how school administrators delayed in contacting authorities.

Or, in the Freeh report released after investigations into Pennsylvania State University's cover-up of sexual abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the report says: "The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims."

So Gerthe, by contrast, does just about everything right. There's no cover-up. And yet when Klara does relent and says she lied, on multiple occasions, the adults tell her otherwise, that the events did happen and Klara is just repressing her unhappy memories. Other children begin reporting that they, too, were Lucas' victims, with parents citing common signs of sexual abuse: Nightmares, distraction, changes in eating habits, etc.

There are certainly cases like the one in this film, such as that of McMartin Preschool, in Los Angeles, that occur because of quickly generated outrage. It's a fine line between underreacting and overreacting.

But "The Hunt" is not about looking at claims of sexual abuse with cynicism, and sexual abuse is, of course, not an illusion; a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that one in five girls, and one in 20 boys, is a victim of child sexual abuse. That's numbering in the tens of millions.

Rather, "The Hunt" shows the power of doubt and conviction, especially when it involves those most precious to us. It reminds us of how fragile children are, and how sometimes that fragility doesn't go away as they mature into adults.


"The Hunt" debuts today at select theaters nationwide. It is rated R for language and brief graphic sexual content. Speaking of language, it's also in Danish, with English sprinkled throughout.

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