Breaking The Cult Of Secrecy
Surrounding Sexual Abuse

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one” M. Garabedian

Secrets are damaging. The film, Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, tells the story of one very pernicious secret uncovered by an investigative team, named Spotlight, at the Boston Globe. That secret, the widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests of many young congregants, managed to evade attention for years even though it was right under people’s noses. Why? The coercions that maintain secrecy, both external and internal, must be taken seriously in order for abuse victims to come forward and get help.

The Secret

Cardinal Bernard E. Law (Len Cariou), head of the Catholic archdiocese in Boston, knew. He covered up abuse by at least 89 priests beginning with Father Geoghan. In the film, Spotlight, new managing editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) charged the Spotlight team, Michael Rezendez (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) with exposing supporting evidence for charges against Cardinal Law. Baron also told them for their evidence to be convincing they must uncover the duplicity at the heart of the Catholic Institution itself.

Duplicity, secrecy, and cover-ups run through all forms of sexual abuse. This has to do with misuse of power. The Catholic Church had great prominence in Boston. Not only spiritual influence, it also had immense financial and political power. Its influence extended to politicians, lawyers who settled victims’ cases off the record, university heads, families, and individuals with deep faith. Spotlight’s task was no easy one. 53% of Boston Globe subscribers were committed Catholics. Many people didn’t want to know.

I work with adults abused as children. Exposing what happened to them, trusting they will be heard and not shamed, is a critical issue. Take Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) of SNAP (Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests) for example. Not only did police, lawyers, and bishops sweep realities under the rug – the Globe’s publisher said: “I wouldn’t mention this.” These same pressures of secrecy live in abusive families and in abused children as well.

Why Turn A Blind Eye?

Some truths are hard to swallow. When something goes against what we want to believe, it’s all too easy to turn away, rationalize it; tell ourselves it wasn’t such a big deal, or it won’t happen again. This human tendency to turn a blind eye causes realities such as sexual abuse to go disregarded.

It happened in Boston. Happened to intelligent and otherwise caring people, sometimes even lapsed Catholics. We see it in Robby Robinson, shocked to find a filed away report about suspected abuse by Father Geoghan received years before and not pursued.

We see it in attorneys who justified defending the Church’s interests. Take Eric Mcleish (Billy Crudup). He initially sent the report of abuse to the Globe. Yet, he later settled abuse cases for the pittance of $20,000, saying: “Most just want to be heard. We got them a little dough and the priests out of circulation.” Attorney Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) was another example: “Look around. These are good people. They’ve done a lot for the city.”

In other words: “Let it go. Just look away.” Victims’ voices and voices trying to represent them, such as attorney Mitchell Garabenian’s (Stanley Tucci), were swallowed up. What took over was the pervasive wish on the part of religious believers to deny what they might otherwise see.

Worse than denial were underhanded camouflage tactics on the part of those that knew and had the authority to do something about it. In Boston, this was Cardinal Law. He could have helped those already abused as well as children vulnerable to predatory priests. He didn’t. Instead, Law used threats to try to stop Marty Baron and the Spotlight team from exposing the truth.

Threats Not To Tell

In the world of sexual abuse, secrecy is maintained by such threats as Cardinal Law’s. Sexual abusers, almost without exception, use coercive threats with their victims. Threats of severe consequences if the secret is exposed reinforce shame, create helplessness, and obstruct a victim from turning to someone who might be able to help.

All sexually abused patients I’ve treated experienced these kinds of threats: “This is our secret. If you tell anyone, you’ll get hurt.” They are put in the untenable position of knowing something is terribly wrong. But having to pretend it isn’t. Even more problematic, threats by abusers take on an internal life of their own. These threats take the form of a voice inside the mind of the victim. A voice that warns against telling or turning to anyone.

These internal voices are the biggest challenge to overcome when a sexually abused person does come to therapy. Trust has been seriously violated. One victim in Spotlight asked, “Who was I supposed to go to for help – another priest?” Victims expect more betrayal. They don’t expect to be heard.

Being Heard

Investigative journalism and analytic therapy have some things in common. Both listen closely. Actively seek the truth. And, both open a space to talk. The Spotlight team did a thorough investigation of the extent of the problem in Boston. They also allowed victims to speak in detail about what happened. Uncovering the histories of such horrific secrets takes courage and compassionate respect for the fear that keeps them hidden.

As the victims in Spotlight shared their stories, we found children from poor families. Sometimes these children were fatherless, sometimes with busy and troubled mothers. All were children for whom the church played an important role. Priests often stood in for parents who were not there or not there enough.  This responsibility was abused.

One man turned to his priest after his father killed himself. His mother was schizophrenic. Another man, gay and keeping his sexuality hidden, thought someone finally saw him and understood. As Phil Saviano said: “When a priest pays attention, it’s a big deal. How do you say no to God?” The special time with the priests, the ice cream, and the car rides, were craved and needed. The sexual violation wasn’t.

Without help and riddled with fears, many sexual abuse victims live with their secrets. They believe no one will ever understand. Many are driven to drug addiction or alcohol abuse. Some kill themselves. Many never have satisfying relationships. Many never trust again.

What does it take for victims to come forward? The first step is where Spotlight ends, with phone lines flooded by victims calling in. The Spotlight team’s thorough investigating and sensitive understanding provided an opening. Victims now had a glint of hope that someone might finally hear. This is where therapy, and help to overcome the effects of abuse, have a chance to begin.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.