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Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors Hope 'Spotlight' Film Brings Victims Forward

  • Reuters

FILE - A plaintiff in a sex abuse settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, holds up pictures of himself when he was a child during a news conference to announce details of a nearly $10 million settlement of their lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

FILE - A plaintiff in a sex abuse settlement with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, holds up pictures of himself when he was a child during a news conference to announce details of a nearly $10 million settlement of their lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Survivors of clergy sex abuse said they hope the upcoming film "Spotlight," about the Boston Globe's groundbreaking report that Roman Catholic officials routinely covered up abuse by priests, prompts more victims to publicly confront their abusers.

The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing in 2002 that church officials routinely covered up reports that priests had sexually assaulted children, setting off a global wave of investigations that found similar patterns at dioceses around the world.

The scandal damaged the Catholic Church worldwide, undermining its moral authority and requiring costly legal settlements. The church is still struggling with the crisis, which Pope Francis addressed last month on his historic first visit to the United States, meeting with victims and declaring that "God weeps" for their pain.

The film, which focuses on the work of the investigative reporters who spent months tracking down sealed court records, victims and abusive priests, does not depict abuse but shows the heavy emotional toll it took on survivors, many of whom turned to alcohol, drugs or suicide when unable to overcome their pain.

"I do think it will encourage more survivors who are still trapped in silence and shame and suffering to find the courage to speak up," said David Clohessy, who runs the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and was sexually assaulted by a priest as a teenager.

"Spotlight," starring Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes, Michael Keaton as editor Walter "Robby" Robinson and Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 6. It has gotten strong early reviews in festival showings, and some in the film industry describe it as a possible Academy Award contender.

Victims portrayed in the film describe how pedophiles of all stripes, not just priests, "groom" their potential victims, first lavishing attention on them, then sharing inappropriate secrets like pornographic magazines before moving on to raping them. It is a pattern survivors of child sex abuse have described repeatedly.

"You feel trapped because he has groomed you. How do you say no to God?" victim Phil Savino, played by Neal Huff, tells Pfeiffer in one early scene.

More to uncover?

"Spotlight," produced by Open Road Films, ends with a list of 206 cities around the world, in countries including Ireland, Australia and Francis' native Argentina, where abuse has been uncovered.

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability which maintains records on abuse and cover ups, said he worries that a movie set more than a decade ago could lead some viewers to believe the crisis had passed.

"It wouldn't be a bad thing for people to ask themselves in what ways is this continuing and in what ways is it better," said McKiernan, who has seen the film. "How is it that this terrible problem duplicated itself around the world, and what do we do about that?"

Insurance experts told a Vatican conference in 2012 that as many as 100,000 U.S. children may have been the victims of clerical sex abuse. Some 12 U.S. dioceses have filed for bankruptcy since the scandal broke, in part due to more than $3 billion in settlements paid to victims.

But victims' advocacy groups note that they continue to fight to reform U.S. state laws that set tight time limits on when victims of sexual assault can sue their alleged attackers.

Victims' advocates contend that short statutes of limitation prevent victims from recovering money that could help pay for the years' of therapy that many have needed, while church lobbyists argue that extending the limits would hurt the church's charitable mission.

Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, appointed after Cardinal Bernard Law resigned over the scandal, said the film "depicts a very painful time in the history of the Catholic Church" and added "the Archdiocese of Boston is fully and completely committed to zero tolerance concerning the abuse of minors."

The description of the abuse crisis as part of the church's "history" angers victims and their advocates, who contend that abuse is ongoing in dioceses around the world.

In one of the film's final scenes, as Rezendes leaves the office of attorney Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci, he pauses to look at a pair of young children playing in a conference room, and Garabedian mentions that they have just been victimized.

That, said director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy, was intended to underline the point that the crisis of abuse has not passed.

"My biggest concern is that not only the church, but the laity, the parents will think, 'OK, this was a problem of the past. We'll lower our guard,'" McCarthy said. "Until we're certain that this problem has been dealt with completely, we have to remain vigilant. We have to push for reform, for change."

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