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For clergy sex abuse survivors, ‘Spotlight’ Oscar win brings joy and tears

The phones of clergy sex abuse survivors and their advocates were lighting up Monday, a day after “Spotlight,” the movie that tells their story, was awarded Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay. Most of the calls expressed a renewed sense of validation among those who first spoke up against a sweeping conspiracy in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

But some of the calls reflected the reality that many victims have yet to tell their stories, their secrets still cloaked in guilt and shame that never should have been theirs.

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“Very early this morning a person called me who is a survivor who had not come forward previously,” said Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney who represented many of the victims in the scandal and is one of the heroes of the film, played by Stanley Tucci. “Because of ‘Spotlight,’ that survivor has regained lost dignity that was stolen by clergy sexual abuse.”

Garabedian, his voice still hoarse from cheering while watching the Academy Awards, said he still has 500 clergy sex abuse cases in which he has either filed a lawsuit or sought claims on behalf of his clients. Because of “Spotlight,” Garabedian said, he has been contacted by survivors from “Cambodia, Turkey, Australia, many, many countries.”

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His hope, he said, is that the attention provided by the movie, which documents The Boston Globe’s investigation starting in 2001 into the abuse and the coverup by church officials, will empower other survivors to come forward.

“I’m getting telephone calls from people congratulating me, because the awareness created by ‘Spotlight’ is helping survivors gain courage, self-esteem, and hope that their lives can be better,” Garabedian said.

Ann Hagan Webb’s phone was also abuzz with calls Monday, and her e-mail was piling up with messages, “all of us survivors texting and calling and congratulating each other.”

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It reminded Webb, a Boston-area psychologist who counsels survivors, of her favorite scene in “Spotlight,” toward the film’s close. The first Globe article about the coverup has come out, and the Spotlight team’s phone lines are flooded by sex abuse victims who want to tell their stories.

Webb, who kept her own story of abuse hidden for many years until she went public in 2002, says she cried when she first saw that scene.

“To me, those phone calls are all people I know. [As victims we] knew we were no longer alone, and that somebody was finally seeing that it shouldn’t be our shame, that it belongs to the perpetrators.

“The message is you don’t have to be ashamed,” Webb said. She, too, took on a new client this week, a survivor who had not opened up until now.

Phil Saviano was abused by a priest when he was 11 and is one of the heroes of “Spotlight.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Phil Saviano was abused by a priest when he was 11 and is one of the heroes of “Spotlight.”

Webb said that she was “elated” to see a fellow survivor on the stage when “Spotlight” producers accepted the best picture award: Phil Saviano, who was abused by a priest when he was 11 and who is played in the film by actor Neal Huff.

“I know they took the challenge of telling the story accurately while paying tribute to both the Globe reporters and the abuse survivors who had the courage to tell their stories publicly,” Saviano said of the filmmakers.

Jim Scanlan was an anonymous survivor until he saw the movie, even though a character based on his story appears in it. Scanlan, 54, was sexually abused in the late 1970s by James F. Talbot, a Boston College High School priest, teacher, and hockey coach.

His testimony to a grand jury led to Talbot’s indictment on the charge of rape; Talbot pleaded guilty in 2005 and served six years in prison. A character in the film, known as “Kevin from Providence,” is based on Scanlan’s real-life story. But until “Spotlight” hit theaters, Scanlan, a financial planner who lives in Boston, kept his name a secret.

Seeing the movie, Scanlan said, made him realize that his story “is not something to be shameful of.”

“Now I feel the weight of the world is off me in terms of being able to share my experience,” he said.

The Oscar recognition, he said, means “more survivors will come out from the shadows, and we will continue to force changes to end this abuse.”

David O’Regan, 65, the Boston-Worcester director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also heard from a survivor who spoke up for the first time after watching “Spotlight” on Sunday.

“This is the 17th survivor to come forward for the first time and speak with me” since the film came out in November, O’Regan said. “I’m pretty confident people will be calling me over the next few weeks and months.”

O’Regan was abused by a priest at a Catholic summer camp when he was 12. He kept his secret for more than four decades, until the publication in 2002 of the Spotlight investigation revealed that the church had known about sexually abusive priests, including the one who molested him. Those revelations made him angry and depressed and compelled him to finally tell his secret to his wife of 30 years.

O’Regan survived. Some victims did not.

Patrick McSorley was one of 86 plaintiffs who received a combined $10 million settlement from the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, stemming from their abuse at the hands of the Rev. John J. Geoghan. McSorley was just 29 when he died in 2004, the result of what authorities called a drug overdose.

“The very nature of childhood abuse is trauma, and children survive that trauma by locking it away in their memories,” O’Regan said. “When life’s events trigger these traumas they come to the surface in ugly ways, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I am so very grateful for the success of ‘Spotlight’ winning the best picture award,” he said. “It will help keep the spotlight on the church for years to come, and that helps protect children.”

David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com.
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