Santa Barbara Film Fest Chief: I Was a Victim of Priest Child Abuse (Guest Column)

Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Roger Durling

Thanks to 'Spotlight,' Roger Durling, the head of the fest (running Feb. 3-13), is opening up about his "painful journey of healing": "Now I'm allowed to feel vindicated."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

I feared the idea of watching Spotlight, but as the credits rolled, there was an incredible feeling of cathartic liberation. I sat in the theater realizing that I was not invisible anymore. I had seen victims of priest child abuse portrayed on the screen with the utmost sympathy.

When I was a young boy, I myself became a victim of abuse by a priest in Panama, where I was born. I rarely discuss it publicly, but it's been a painful journey of healing and coming to terms with the fact that it wasn't my fault. I'm a sur­vivor. I've been lucky. I know victims who have become drug addicts, who have turned to prostitution or — worse — who have committed suicide. For many years, I compartmentalized my struggle. I had completely erased the events from my history. Sadly, the trauma remained. I couldn't be intimate. I hated my body and the way I looked. I washed my hands compulsively. Being a gay man made me an easy prey to my oppressor, and for close to 30 years I struggled with the idea that my sexuality was to blame for my instability.

Movies saved my life and gave me purpose. My abuse had made me feel that I wasn't good enough for anything, that ultimately I would fail at whatever I set out to do. I got a graduate degree from Columbia University, but I didn't believe in myself enough to capitalize on my education. After school, I attempted to be a writer, but I didn't push myself as hard as I should have. I feared rejection too much. I would accept jobs with abusive bosses because that's the way I felt most comfortable. My only solace was movies. In the dark, among fellow cinephiles, I didn't feel disfigured. I could look Hannibal Lecter in the face — and I was fearless.

I had the great blessing to be introduced to the Telluride Film Festival 30 years ago, and all of a sudden I found in film festivals an incredible haven. I compulsively attended festivals and yearned to spend more time with those interested in movies — not in my appearance nor my background. When the opportunity came to head the Santa Barbara Film Festival 13 years ago, with little experience — and for the first time in my life — I confidently said I could do something and do it well. So in a way, I was emboldened by movies.

I'll never forget seeing Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette in 1986, with a gay couple portrayed as normal. In 2012, I saw Stephen Chbosky's underrated The Perks of Being a Wallflower and experienced a young man struggling with the fact that he'd been abused. That helped me understand that I wasn't isolated. And now I have Tom McCarthy's Oscar-nominated film Spotlight, one of the most honest portrayals of seeking justice for victims. I never wanted retribution for what happened to me, but now at least I'm allowed to feel vindicated.

That's the power of movies, isn't it? They can help us come to terms with our past and also have the power to give a voice to people like me who used to feel utterly anchorless and alone.

Roger Durling is the executive director of the Santa Barbara Film Festival, which runs Feb. 3-13.

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