Phil Saviano’s Trauma in Spotlight: A Case Study

Phil Saviano’s Trauma in Spotlight: A Case Study


People experience trauma as a result of sexual abuse and may often require counselling or other kinds of clinical interventions. When people experience trauma at young ages, it is often difficult to come forward and share their story and get help until they are adults. At this point, it may difficult to correct the impact of the trauma on their lives. However, the right interventions may help. In the movie. “Spotlight,” the story of young boys who experiences sexual abuse at the hands of priests is told (McCArthy, 2015). Most of the boys say that the experience confused them because they saw priests as a source of power. Additionally, most priests often came to them when they had some other tough things going on in their lives or families. The following will be an examination of Phil Saviano’s case (McCArthy, 2015). Phil Saviano is the founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). Appropriate intervention plans will be discussed in accordance to relevance to his case as a survivor of trauma from sexual abuse from priests.

Introduction of the key characteristics of the client including the client’s social context

Phil Saviano introduces himself as a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. He says that this started when he was 11 years old. He says that at the time this was happening, there were some troubles at home and the priest was supposed to be one of those people who would help with this. Phil Saviano says that they were poor at home and he felt special when the priest recognized him. Before the incident, he had deep respect for priests and to be recognized by one meant a lot to him. Religion meant a lot to him, mainly because of the poverty at home. For the priests, however, this was not the case. The requirement for celibacy by priests often means that those who fail in remaining celibate are covered for by other priests and the entire church in general (Jenkins, 2017). The Church often holds such great power that it is difficult for boys like Phil to do anything since their cases are brushed aside and overlooked (Jenkins, 201) However, he did not know what was at stake and went along with everything that the priest said. As an adult, Phil realizes that the best help can come from both support groups and the media. He forms the SNAP group, which has eleven members at the time. The media is not too responsive to his cries initially. He is dismissed due to the fact that the media recognizes the power that the church has. Most of the people in the area are Catholics and the Church has enough money to afford to cover up for cases like this (McCarthy, 2015).


Saviano’s case is unique to him, yet in some ways, similar to the standards sexual abuse and trauma case. One of the key characteristics in the case is familiarity. This can best be explained by the concept of grooming which Saviano explains. Saviano explains that a priest does not usually just take on any boy. He starts by asking him mundane favors and then sharing a dirty joke that it to be a secret between them. Saviano does not tell anyone about any of this at the time. Saviano opens up when he is an adult. This corresponds to the literature that shows that most of the survivors of sexual abuse do not open up about what they have faced until they are much older and the consequences are non-existent (Easton, 2014). Usually, the victims have already undergone mental, emotional and sometimes physical suffering as a result of the abuse by this time (Easton, 2014). In fact, Phil Saviano describes it as spiritual abuse since he believed that the church was an institution he should have been able to trust at that young age (McCarthy, 2014).

In order to assess the effects of the abuse and suggest better ways to deal with it, it is important to look at some factors. The first factor would be to look at the age of Saviano when it happened and the age at which he reported it. Saviano says that it happened when he was 11. He reported and pursued everything when he was an adult in his forties. His main motivation for doing that was because he had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and felt that he did not have much to lose by exposing his abusers. He was offered a settlement that would have required him to be quiet about the details of the case. He, however, refused to take it, believing it would be better if he pursued the case even further until the world knew of the extent of the abuse in the church. This pursuit represents a difference between how children see their abuse and what happens when they are adults. As a child, Saviano had remained silent and would have definitely taken the settlement instead. Saviano is aware that within religious teachings, reporting sexual abuse is difficult due to the power that the religious leaders, who are often the abusers hold (Harper & Perkins, 2018). He is determined to change that through the media, which is another powerful office. 

Therapeutic principles and best practice guidelines to consider in working with the client

Working with a patient like Saviano requires that I be aware of his situation and to exercise some professional standards as required by the guidelines. As a counsellor working with victims of sexual abuse like Saviano I should be aware that often, victims of childhood sexual abuse are likely to exhibit difficult to correct adulthood sexual behaviors that may inhibit relationships (Vaillancourt‐Morel, Godbout, Sabourin, Briere, Lussier, & Runtz, 2016). I should therefore ask if this has been the case with him, and whether he is in a long term relationship whose functioning may be affected by the traumatic events that happened in his childhood. If that is the case, I should recommend coping strategies aimed at making sure he recovers and can have healthy sexual relationships. 

Any suggested solutions and coping mechanisms should be related to the experience and not separate from this. This therapeutic principle comes from the fact that an interrelated coping and diagnostic mechanism is better for the patient as it helps quicker recovery and for them to keep living a better life. As a counsellor for Saviano, I should also try to make sure that the hierarchical barriers do not interfere with the counselling process. This means that the patient, Saviano, should be as part of the counselling process as the counsellor and any other people in the clinical setting.  Overcoming trauma should therefore focus on the methods that work for Saviano. For example, his SNAP group is already a means for people in a situation like his to survive. Best practices should ensure that he keeps the group and that the means that work for him are considered before other additions to his care plan. 

Finally, the interventions and counselling plans should aim at preventing future related trauma from occurring. This means that the client, Saviano, should only be counselled in ways that do not make his past trauma more traumatizing. His triggers should be identified and used in the counselling process to prevent further trauma from occurring. 

Evidence based treatment appropriate for your client

In Saviano’s case, Herman’s three stage model is a favorable model to use in the counselling and general help (Herman, 1992). One of the first things to establish in Saviano’s case is safety. As a counsellor, I should check whether Saviano has a safe environment, whether he has any habits that make him unsafe and whether there are situations that may arise and make him unsafe based on his past trauma. Saviano’s case is that of a person who is generally safe. He has a support group, SNAP, which he can look up to for safety tips in case he starts to feel unsafe. However, additional safety measures need to be established since Saviano is in constant contact with the press and people may target him if they do not like the fact that he is telling his story. 

The second step according to Herman’s three stage model is coming to terms with traumatic memories (Herman, 1992). In Saviano’s case, it would be helpful to make sure that he understands that what happened when he was eleven years old was not his fault. This would help him come to terms with it. Given the specific details Saviano gives, it is also important that that he understands that the priest was wrong for taking advantage of his religiosity and the trouble that was at home at a time when he was very vulnerable. Finally, the counsellor should make sure that everything is clear in Saviano’s mind regarding the incidents. Based on the evidence from the film, Saviano seems to remember clearly all the things that happened to him as a child. This is evidence of the impact this had on him as a child. I should therefore help him come to terms with these clear memories.

The final step according to Herman’s model is integration and moving on. The steps here require that Saviano deal with the traumatic events in ways that can help him move on (Herman, 1992). One of the steps is reporting to the media as he has already done. Another would be to form a support group. Saviano already has his SNAP group where people like him can share their traumatic experiences. This should also include counselling services until he is able to function properly without the trauma affecting him in a way that causes dysfunction. As a counsellor, my work in this case should be to guide Saviano and make sure that all the interventions are working towards helping him and are not making it worse for him in any way. I should e careful to make sure that the steps to make sure he does not experience traumatic events again as he is trying to move on from the current one. 

Ethical Issues

People working with patients like Saviano should be aware of the ethical issues that surround cases like his. The main issue is the connection of the trauma to religion, and the fact that the religious institution in this case, the Catholic Church, is extremely powerful (Harper & Perkins, 2018) . As a result, they may ask Saviano to keep quiet about his ordeal in exchange for a settlement. If he complies, it may be extremely difficult for him to open up what happened. Priests are also likely not likely to admit anything, making it even more difficult for Saviano. Recognition of the power of the church is important for legal reasons. In the film, spotlight, it is made clear that often, people are afraid of the power of the church (McCarthy, 2015). This makes it difficult to prevent further cases and to help current victims. The courts often cannot do anything if the victims do not come forward.

Another ethical issue that I should consider when dealing with Saviano is the consent. Saviano’s consent is important in any suggestion to improve his life. Only the things he consents to should be advocated (Runciman, Merry, & Walton, 2017). As a person dealing with a victim of childhood sexual trauma, it is my responsibility to make sure that I understand all the ethical considerations and make sure that I adhere to the proper professional care (Runciman et al., 2017). 

Based on the two issues above, I would not disclose the information to anyone, including authorities or the media, unless Saviano asked me to do it. Disclosing is likely to trigger a reaction from the church that may be counterproductive to the trauma recovery options that I may have for Saviano.

In conclusion, Saviano is a victim of childhood sexual abuse and trauma. To help him recover, there are many issues to consider. The nature of the perpetrator of the abuse is important, both ethically and in the recovery sense. The priest was someone Saviano trusted and also powerful. This may be a hindrance to seeking help. Saviano, can, however, work with an able counsellor to make sure that he recovers.


Easton, S. D. (2014). Masculine norms, disclosure, and childhood adversities predict long-term mental distress among men with histories of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect38(2), 243-251.

Harper, C. A., & Perkins, C. (2018). Reporting child sexual abuse within religious settings: challenges and future directions. Child abuse review27(1), 30-41.

Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of traumatic stress5(3), 377-391.

Jenkins, P. (2017). Clergy sexual abuse: The symbolic politics of a social problem. In Images of issues (pp. 105-130). Routledge.

McCarthy, T. (Director). (2015). Spotlight [Motion picture]. Universal City, CA : Universal Studios.

Runciman, B., Merry, A., & Walton, M. (2017). Safety and ethics in healthcare: a guide to getting it right. CRC Press.

Vaillancourt‐Morel, M. P., Godbout, N., Sabourin, S., Briere, J., Lussier, Y., & Runtz, M. (2016). Adult sexual outcomes of child sexual abuse vary according to relationship status. Journal of marital and family therapy42(2), 341-356.

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