Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.” – George Washington

Child abuse is the great shame of the modern world. From a purely sociological perspective, we have made a singular cultural habit of ignoring, repressing and even denying its scale and impact. It is as if the proverbs ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ and ‘out of sight, out of mind’ were created with child abuse in mind. It is only through the bravery of survivors who speak out about their experiences, overcoming public prejudice and numerous other personal and societal pressures, that we are now aware of the extent of this evil in our society – and that is just the tip of the iceberg. The social impact of shining a public light on the darkened private places of our world cannot be overestimated.

The Savile Effect

“The Savile Effect” refers to the considerable increase in disclosures of abuse made since the UK media first reported in October 2012 on Operation Yewtree’s investigation into the sexual assaults inflicted by Jimmy Savile and by other media personalities. By December 2012, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre was reporting a 30 per cent rise in reports of abuse, while calls to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had increased by 200 per cent. Scotland Yard also reported that the publicity surrounding the Savile scandal had prompted a fourfold increase in reports of sexual abuse in London. We commented on this effect in a recent blog.

Anecdotally, in the Bolt Burdon Kemp Child Abuse team we have noticed a significant increase since late 2012 in people wanting our assistance to pursue claims against those responsible for their abuse. A similar result was seen when, following media appearances in December 2014 discussing the claims our firm is taking against the Scout Association, we fielded several hundreds calls from people enquiring about pursuing their own claims against the Scouts.

Accused abusers have been quick to label the Savile Effect as simply people jumping on a bandwagon in the hope of obtaining monetary compensation, such as in Rolf Harris’ recently leaked letter from prison, but nothing could be further from the truth. The reports of Operation Yewtree gave abuse survivors a voice. It made them feel that they would be believed and supported – when for years, their abusers had told many of them that they would be considered liars if they told anyone, or that the victims themselves were the ones to blame for the abuse. Sexual abuse and all that accompanies it – grooming, physical and emotional abuse – is about power, above all, and power survives and thrives on the disenfranchisement of others.

The recent phenomenon of near-daily media reports of sexual abuse by those in power has started to shift the scales here in the UK, leading to many successful civil claims, criminal prosecutions and public inquiries, including the Statutory Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Would a similar approach work in other counties, such as the United States?

An Open Secret

On Friday 5 June 2015, the documentary ‘An Open Secret‘ was released in the United States, initially screening in New York, Seattle and Denver, following a limited New York release in November 2014. Marketed as “the movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see”, the film alleges the abuse of child actors by a paedophile ring within the American film industry, consisting of managers, agents, publicists and directors. The abuse is said to have often occurred at drug and alcohol fuelled parties, following grooming of both the victims and their families, and the film apparently pulls no punches in revealing the identities of the accusers and the accused.

The film suggests that this is common knowledge within the industry, but that the high profile predators are protected by the studio system in order to avoid a scandal and to protect their profits. They are the Hollywood Establishment.

Sadly, this is far from the first time such allegations have been made. The allegations against Michael Jackson are probably the most well-known example. More recently, in his 2013 autobiography Coreyography, Corey Feldman disclosed the abuse that he and fellow child actor Corey Haim had suffered as child actors (incidentally, in his book Feldman denied ever being abused by his close friend Michael Jackson). Feldman reported a conversation in which Haim had told him that, while filming in 1986, at age 14:

“…an adult male convinced him that it was perfectly normal for older men and younger boys in the business to have sexual relations, that it was what all the guys do. So they walked off to a secluded area between two trailers… and Haim [was] sodomized.”

As perhaps might be anticipated, ‘An Open Secret’ has struggled to gain distribution. It has been rejected by numerous festivals, including in the UK. It has been cut to remove any refence to the abandoned 2014 lawsuit against director Bryan Singer. Director Amy Berg released the current version without making all of the cuts demanded by the Screen Actors Guild under the implied threat of litigation – which is a fascinating story in itself.

While to date I have been unable to see the film – which, as yet, appears to have no release date outside the US – some reviewers describe that the reported legal and industry apathy towards the abusers is in some ways more shocking than the abuse and its devastating lifelong effect on the victims. For instance, the film notes that certain convicted and registered sex offenders are apparently still allowed to work with children in Hollywood.

An Open Secret – Reviews

Critical reviews of the film have been largely favourable. Indiewire calls the film:

“a bold, incendiary look at a topic many people would rather avoid. In an ideal world, Amy Berg’s daring exposé “An Open Secret” will launch uncomfortable conversations and start an intelligent, long-overdue dialogue about sexual abuse in Hollywood… an incisive and utterly unflinching look at a subject too rarely scrutinized.”

Filmjournal.com describes the film as:

“Devastating and disheartening… paints a chilling portrait of endemic child abuse at all levels of the movie and TV industry and the lack of any appetite for corrective action… The systemic and routine nature of what they describe is the film’s most disturbing aspect…”

With comments that could just as easily be applied to accusations made against the Establishment and media personalities on this side of the Atlantic, the Hollywood Reporter’s review describes the film as:

“A sober look at accusations that lend themselves to sensationalism… with any luck it will encourage other victims to speak up, and enlighten the parents of showbiz aspirants about the industry’s dangers… With such minor consequences for those who’ve been convicted, is it any wonder that so few relatively powerless youths are willing to endure the shame and professional consequences of coming forward?”

An Open Secret – Impact

While challenging documentaries can have an enormous societal impact, such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, this depends on the documentaries being widely seen. Unfortunately, An Open Secret has not been a success in that regard to date. One of the Denver cinemas at which it is screening calls it the lowest-grossing film the cinema has had in 26 years. This is probably a result of the confronting subject matter, and our cultural apathy towards it, as described above.

Whatever the reason, it may be that this film may better reach an audience by being released on a service such as Netflix or by being otherwise distributed online. Hopefully, somehow, this important film will be seen by enough people that dialogue – and action – will ensue, and that Hollywood will experience its own version of the Savile Effect.