Early sexual abuse casts long shadows, Spotlight psychologist says
David Lisak, who counselled victims of church abuse in Boston, says trauma can last well into adulthood
For years, John Cattell's instinct was to minimize what happened to him in the 1970s, when his high school music teacher masturbated in front of him. He convinced himself that because it had happened so long ago, it was nothing to dwell on.
But long after the abuse ended, those experiences continued to prey on Cattell and the teacher's other victims, causing them anxiety, depression, and difficulty with relationships and authority.
Clinical psychologist David Lisak, who's Canadian-born and raised but now practises in New Mexico, counsels those suffering from the long-term impact of childhood sexual abuse, and said Cattell's experience is remarkably common.
A former faculty member at the University of Massachusetts, Lisak was brought in to help counsel victims after the Boston Globe's Spotlight team exposed widespread abuse by Catholic clergy in 2002 — an exposé that would later become the subject of the 2015 film Spotlight, winner of the Academy Award for best picture the following year.
"I have worked with so many men, in so many different contexts, for whom the abuse on the surface looked so minor, so incidental, that you couldn't imagine this could have a long-term impact on them — and the opposite is true," Lisak said.
Decades of abuse
Bob Clarke was convicted of abusing Cattell and seven other students throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and is now serving time in prison.
- 'I'm a demon inside': Teacher convicted of sex crimes sought treatment
- 'They could have stopped this': Sex abuse warnings at Ottawa high school went unheeded
- No more secrets: Victims of student sexual abuse tell their stories
Cattell has a near-photographic memory of the day in 1975 when Clarke invited him over to do yard work, then into his kitchen, where he masturbated in front of the boy and asked him join in.
"I can tell you what he was wearing. I can tell you how he had his hair, the glasses he was wearing, the colour of his shirt," Cattell recalled, as if recounting the details of a horror film. "I was 13 years old."
Looking back, Cattell said he wasn't sexually aware at that age, and believes Clarke was testing him, just as he tested and sexually assaulted his other teen victims.
It was 2016 before Cattell told his story to police, then to his friends and family.
Self-blame takes root
It often takes many years for victims of child sexual abuse to come forward, according to Lisak. Many blame themselves.
"They start coming up with reasons why: I'm weak, not man enough, I secretly wanted it. All these ideas get started, then over time, develop deeper and deeper roots."
While counselling victims of historic abuse in Boston, Lisak said one man's story stuck with him. At the time of the abuse, the victim was a boy from a dysfunctional family who was clinging to the church for emotional support.
"The priest put his hand on the boy's thigh and then slid his hand up and touched his genitals," Lisak said. "When this priest did this to him it literally destroyed his world. It cut the final rope that tied him to the dock and he was cast out to sea."
Unravelling relationships and poor performance at school or work are among the long-term casualties of early sexual abuse, according to Lisak's research.
Victims are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts later in life.
"I knew that it had messed with me in some sort, but it's one of those things. You never want to say that you were weak. You never want to say, 'This affected me.' A lot of people just say, 'Suck it up, let it go.' And for a lot of people, they can do that."
After Cattell told his family, he continued to seek counselling. He's also met other victims.
"I think there was a shared validation," he said. "It's very strange, because I didn't want to know who they were because [I thought] it would only make me feel worse."
As difficult as it can be to face other victims, Lisak said peer support groups are vital because they can break a victim's isolation and open the door to further recovery.