While details regarding allegations of child sexual abuse by actor Stephen Collins are still emerging, his portrayal of a sexually abusive priest in the short film “Penance” eerily foreshadows the allegations he now faces off screen and also touches on a misconception still held by some. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times the film was made in 2013 before the secret audio recording obtained by his wife was released to the public. The secret audio recording allegedly includes admissions by Collins of sexual impropriety with minors. Some have alleged that Collins used his celebrity status to engender the trust of the families of the children similar to the dynamic of a priest being granted additional trust because of his clerical status.
In the film, Collins’ character chillingly expresses that children will be able to put the trauma in the past with their lives going on to the point at which it will be forgotten. Those of us working with survivors every day know that while healing and the regaining power are possible through justice, accountability and transparency the scars of clerical sexual abuse are never forgotten by the child and should never be forgotten by the rest of us. The misconception that child abuse of any form can simply be forgotten and put in the past is not only incorrect but potentially harmful and counterproductive to those recovering from its effects. To the film’s credit, as it proceeds, even Collins’ character seems to develop a more full understanding of the seriousness and profound impact of this trauma.
Certainly the lines Collins’ character speaks in the film, if written by another, cannot be attributed to him personally. However, it is safe to say that if his case ever reaches a trial his portrayal of a sexual abuser will be heavily scrutinized by many including those who would be subjecting him to questioning. The developing situation involving the allegations against Collins will focus not only on how the rules of evidence in multiple jurisdictions (New York and California) will treat the secretly obtained audio tape, but possibly how media outlets available only to actors and Hollywood’s elite may in fact be used as well.
What should we learn from this situation?
1) The power differential created by Status or Title be it clerical, celebrity or elite athlete require increased vigilance by those who know or should know of any misdeeds.
2) Time does not always heal all wounds. Only through acknowledgment and justice is healing possible. The trauma caused by betrayal of trust is not simply forgotten with the passage of time but must be healed by acts of justice. A full and substantive investigation should be conducted by law enforcement and statutes of limitation (time limits) should be increased by legislatures for this type of case.