Haunted: An abuse victim deals with his trauma through film

Filmmaker Skip Shea still lives in the same town where he grew up, where he went to school and where he was sexually abused by Catholic priests. For years he was passed from one predator to the next, all of them allegedly in recovery from their unholy desires. The town is Uxbridge, Massachusetts, right over the RI border. It was there that Shea faced numerous sexual assaults that have plagued his entire life, causing him to go as far as attempting suicide, an urge he has quelled with years of therapy and the creation of solemn and often haunting films on the subject.

Trinity, which Shea directed, wrote and produced, delves into his own story. The film depicts a version of himself, Michael, who runs into the priest who assaulted him as a young adult later in life. This sets off a tortured exploration of his past, his suicide attempt, his lingering trauma and the periods of dissociation it brings. While the confrontation between Michael and the priest is based around an experience Shea had in a bookstore, the actual argument that occurs in the film did not take place in real life. Instead, Shea channeled his trauma into his art.

“If I don’t achieve some sort of peace in my life, they win, and I’m gonna be damned if I let them win,” he told me. He still screens the film from time to time and produces new works about the same topics. It’s not uncommon for fellow survivors who have not yet publicly come forward to confess to him after these screenings, a trend Shea doesn’t believe will stop any time soon.

Many new abuses have come to light following the release of 50 “credibly accused” clergy members’ names, and a new bill allowing sexual abuse victims nearly 20 more yearsto report abuse in cases of repressed memory was passed 70-1. Representative Carol Hagan McEntee’s bill was created because the representative’s sister, now 66, had been abused as a child but was unable to seek damages. Despite this victory, Shea is among many who have doubts over the church’s methods of self-reporting the crimes of its members.

“People think they’re protecting the church, but they’re protecting pedophiles,” he said. An organization like the church or the Boy Scouts, and professions like athletic coaching and others, provide cover and countless opportunities for those with predilections to prey on children. “Priests don’t become pedophiles; pedophiles become priests,” he added. “That’s how a good predator works.”

In his own small town, he acknowledged that he is a pariah, something of a walking symbol of things people would rather not think about. For a survivor of such abuses, Shea’s views are surprisingly nuanced, and he doesn’t blame his fellow townspeople for turning their heads away.

“I understand the people who avoid me. As it is, the priests who abused me could’ve nursed their mother back to health. And my story doesn’t invalidate thier story at all, and nor should it. But their story doesn’t invalidate mine, either.”

In Trinity, the priest who abused Michael haunts his memories even into adulthood. Sequences of brutal symbolism go to show the hyper-vigilance that many trauma survivors feel, unable to achieve peace of mind without significant help from therapists and community support. When the bulk of a town prefers to side with abusers rather than victims, it can further reinforce feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness among survivors. While attitudes are slowly shifting toward believing abuse victims, the Catholic Church is deeply entrenched in southern New England, and many will never truly hold it accountable for its lack of action on this front.

Much of Shea’s issues with the church stem from the fact that abusive priests remain capable of committing further abuses. In his own experiences, all the priests who abused him were allegedly in treatment. For its part, the Providence Diocese website reads: “The relationship of a diocese to a priest is more like a family than a business relationship. Even a priest who sins seriously remains a priest.” It goes on to say: “Previously the depth of some of these illnesses, such as pedophila, was not fully understood, and in the past, some priests were returned to parishes even though, as we now understand, their treatment was ineffective.”

This kind of non-answer is likely not much for people like Shea and Rep McEntee’s sister, but at least it’s something. While stories of abuse continue to break time and time again, filmmaking like Shea’s and legislation like McEntee’s move us closer to true accountability with those who have preyed on our society’s most vulnerable members and those who have shielded these predators.

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