Secrets and Sexual Abuse

I recently saw Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the eight Boston Globe reporters who uncovered hundreds of stories of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by local clergy of the Catholic Church and hidden by Cardinal Bernard Law and dozens of attorneys.

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Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church

Many of you are deeply committed to this story, either as long-term residents of the Boston area, members of the Catholic Church, or as victims (and family members of victims) of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of trusted men.

This morning provided another chapter in the larger, regional healing process between the Catholic Church and its parishioners. The Diocese of Portland, Maine reached a $1.2 million settlement today with six victims of childhood sexual abuse from Fr. James Vallely, a process that was fraudulently covered up by other members of the Diocese, including Bishop Daniel Feeney.

The earliest allegation of sexual abuse by Fr. Vallely occurred in 1956--over 60 years ago. Sarah Larson, a columnist at the New Yorker, writes about the generational implications in an interview with members of the Spotlight team. (This segment is edited and italicized.)

Walter Robinson: “An eighty-seven-year-old man from Millinocket, Maine, who was a great-grandfather, called to tell me about how he had been abused at the age of twelve. I was the first person he had ever told. It had happened in 1926. And he called in January of 2002 to tell me how it had just—he had been troubled his whole life about it. I thought, three-quarters of a century of living with this. He was one of those who thought he was the only one. Many victims thought the same thing."

Sacha Pfeiffer: “As a society, we’re so open about sexuality today that I think people can forget what it was like in the forties, fifties, sixties. No one talked about sex, no one knew anything, it was shameful. I’ve talked to several men, who, all these decades later, who would say, ‘I was so horrified by what was happening when I was being abused, but my body was acting like I enjoyed it—does that mean I’m gay?’ This is decades later. And of course in that time you don’t want to be gay. What did that make you in society? People were afraid. Here we were in the two-thousands and people were saying, ‘Am I gay because of what happened to me and what my body did when I was twelve?’ That’s heartbreaking.”

We're getting better at discussing sexuality; I would argue that we've even become hypervigilant about looking for and protecting against childhood sexual abuse. After all, 93% of sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator.

Many organizations talk about the short-term and long-term effects on childhood sexual abuse on its victims, including RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). For instance, survivors of childhood sexual abuse are three times as likely to experience depression and four times as likely to have abuse alcohol or other substances. At some point, we'll discuss more about the specific support that our therapists can give to survivors of sexual abuse.

But the situation with the Catholic Church reminds us of the damaging ways that systems (macro, such as religious institutions, or micro, such as families) prevent survivors from seeking healing when they choose to protect perpetrators (and the system itself) from embarrassment, salvage the status quo by keeping secrets, and create fear through threats of retribution for breaking said secrets.

Sexual Abuse and Family Therapy

Victims of childhood (or any other kind of) sexual abuse can only begin to heal when their story is acknowledged, when they no longer feel burdened by carrying the secret. The disclosure of sexual abuse may result in a higher level of turmoil; the system (family members, or in the case of Spotlight, attorneys supporting the Catholic Church) may deny that the incident happened or blame the victim. 

It's in these situations where our family therapists can be helpful, both by advocating for the victim and assisting him/her in moving toward a place of healing and helping the family reorganize after the abusive event.

If you or a family member have been victimized by sexual abuse, we can work with you individually (Paula Leech does amazing work with sexual trauma for teens and adults, and Stephanie Wallace provides quality play therapy for children and adolescents) or your entire family (Jeremiah Gibson and Stephen Duclos both work with larger families). Click Book Now, fill out the information under the Contact Us link, or call us at 617-750-0183 for more information.