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Survivors of clergy sexual abuse discuss how ‘Spotlight’ portrayed their trauma

The cast pose with the real life characters they portray as they arrive on the red carpet for the film “Spotlight” during the 40th Toronto International Film Festival.

Ann Hagan Webb didn’t expect to get emotional while watching Spotlight for the first time. As a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest, she had already lived through the events depicted in the film.

But Webb found herself feeling completely overwhelmed as she observed how The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of investigative journalists personally reacted to uncovering the systemic problem of clergy sexual abuse. Seeing it play out on the big screen reminded her of the moment she realized that, as a victim, she wasn’t alone.


“All of the survivors thought of ourselves as the only ones at some point,’’ she said. “Then we would meet a few other people and realize the enormity of the problem. Seeing the journalists figure that out, too, the horror of ‘oh, there are so many,’ was very personal.’’

Spotlight hits theaters nationwide on November 6. In Boston, where the scandal broke wide open, some survivors are anxious about how the movie portrays their story, in part because the film is told from the perspective of the journalists rather than the survivors. They’re also worried that the film might force them to re-live their trauma.

“There are also a lot of survivors who just don’t remember because it’s buried so deep. This movie could be the trigger,’’ said Robert Costello, an abuse survivor who hasn’t seen the movie yet. “It also might be a trigger for other people who were violated but not by a priest or a nun, or were assaulted in some other way.’’

Even so, many abuse victims hope the film’s release will shine a light yet again on the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic church.

“I hope if survivors are out there who haven’t come forward, they’ll feel empowered by this film and want to come to grips with it,’’ said survivor Phil Saviano, whose character is portrayed in the movie, “and move past it so it doesn’t hold that sense of power over them.’’


Some abuse victims are concerned about the framing of the movie, which doesn’t address the investigation’s aftermath, Webb said. Many survivors, including Webb, did not come forward until after the story broke.

“I think a lot of survivors were worried that we weren’t in it, and that it doesn’t address how the fight for awareness is still going on,’’ Webb said. “But it’s not about that time period, so of course we’re not in it.’’

Webb was pleasantly surprised that the screenwriters chose to refer to the victims as “children’’ rather than “boys.’’

Although the Globe’s investigation focused on the abuse of young boys, about 30 to 35 percent of victims are female, she said.

Some survivors, like Saviano, played a key role in shaping the film’s script.

Among the first to come forward about clergy sexual abuse, Saviano was sexually assaulted by Father David Holley in Worcester in the ’60s. Holley was sentenced to 275 years in prison in 1993 for sexually abusing at least eight children in New Mexico in the ’70s.

Because of his early activism, the Spotlight team brought him in to learn more about clergy abuse when they were just beginning their investigation.


Saviano said he gave the Spotlight team a “crash course in clergy sexual abuse,’’ which included a list of 13 priests whom he knew had abused children, as well as two books that had been written about clergy abuse some years before.

Saviano was first approached by screenwriter Josh Singer three years ago. The pair discussed Saviano’s history of abuse in depth and his role in helping the Spotlight team.

But then Saviano didn’t hear anything from Singer, or the rest of the production team, for two years. After the first year, he assumed they weren’t including his character. After the second year, he figured they weren’t making the movie.

Then, on September 21, 2014, Saviano got an email from a stranger who would come to know Saviano’s story almost as well as Saviano, himself.

“Dear Phil,’’ the stranger wrote. “I can’t tell you what an honor it is for me to have the opportunity to portray you in ‘Spotlight.’ … I consider the task of representing you a rare and truly sacred thing.’’

The stranger was Neil Huff, the actor who portrays Saviano in the film. Huff came to Boston, and the pair spent 12 hours together talking about Saviano’s history.

That conversation helped Saviano realize that, even those the survivors’ on-screen appearance may be brief, the people involved in making the movie were sensitive to the pain experienced by those involved.

“It’s a dramatic story about reporters uncovering a big news story,’’ Saviano said. “It’s not all about us. But that’s okay. If it’s marketed that way as opposed to being a story about people being raped by priests, and that gets people to go see it, well, then our message is still getting out there.’’


Photos from the Spotlight premiere:

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