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The Sexual Abuse Crisis: Deliver us from Evil and Doubt

July 20, 2010

It’s one of the most difficult religion stories of the past three decades.

And it’s far from over. How could it be?

Glen's Pics (Flickr Creative Commons)

Over the past decade, the Catholic church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals around the world. And for virtually every sin of commission (an abuse victim coming forward), there seems to have been multiple sins of omission (allegations that offenses went unpunished by bishops, archbishops, etc).

The sins of omission are possibly more damning than the crimes themselves. It’s one thing to have sexual abuse within the Church – should we ever be surprised that abuse is coupled with spiritual power? – but it’s another to simply shuffle an admitted child molester to another parish and a new set of victims. Former Los Angeles Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell says that the Church’s attempts at obfuscation led him to abandon his faith.

The New York Times recently published a 4,000-word feature attributing the sin of omission to Pope Benedict XVI. The piece has had some mixed responses. Some media watchers have labeled the coverage as a “tendentious hatchet job.” Mark Silk, on the other hand, is on the side of defending the piece as essentially accurate, if only in need of slight editorial revisions. But whether or not you think Pope Benedict is responsible for hiding the abuse (or think he’s finally exposing it), it’s clear that the scandal will be one of the dismal legacies of his papacy.

Last week, the Vatican announced revisions to canon law surrounding sexual abuse. For one, they doubled the statue of limitations for prosecuting abusive priests. A second change aimed at streamlining legal procedures for prosecution of sex abuse cases.

Critics are virtually unanimous in saying the revisions don’t go far enough. The Church has responded that it’s only a first step. The most glaring omission is that the Church is not requiring mandatory reporting of all allegations of abuse. Here’s the Edmonton Journal’s editorial response:

The Church’s response is particularly galling in light of everything we now know — from lawsuits, criminal trials and public inquiries — of its own role in keeping those allegations secret for so long.

For the Vatican to now appear to be doing anything less than everything possible to prevent future abuse is a betrayal of past victims. But it is also a betrayal of the millions of Catholics who have given their lives to the Church and trusted in its teachings to guide them along a moral path.

It’s hard to write anything other than something along those lines. This is a horrific story with clear perpetrators and clear victims. Steps taken in response to abuse need to be commensurate with the problem. More is needed.

I’ve decided to write a bit about two movies I’ve watched in recent months about sexual abuse in the Church. I highly recommend both films. Both attempt to deliver something more than just criminals and victims and graphic details. Both attempt to provide psychological insights into sexual abusers and the inability of an institution to recognize its fallibility. These are lessons that extend beyond the confines of the Catholic Church.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006): Amy Berg’s documentary offers a unique glimpse into the mind of an abusive priest, Oliver O’Grady.  Between the 1973 until the early 1990s, Fr. Ollie abused numerous children (at least 25) in a series of Northern Californian parishes. After one of the earliest instances of abuse in 1976, O’Grady wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s parents. The parents agreed not to press charges on the condition that O’Grady was to be removed, receive counseling, and not to work with children.

Instead of being removed from the priesthood, O’Grady was passed to another parish within two years, and eventually three other parishes by the time he was convicted on four counts of lewd and lascivious acts in 1993. After spending seven years in prison, he was shuffled back to his native Ireland, where he resided on a Church pension until this film was released. He has since been chased to new locations, most recently the Netherlands, where he was found calling himself “Brother Francis” and helping out at a local church.

Amazingly, O’Grady (or Father Ollie) agreed to be interviewed in the documentary. Father Ollie is a fascinating, even charismatic character (he describes himself as a “people person), eloquently expressing remorse and freely accepting blame (and any label handed him). With Irish whimsy, he delineates the circumstances around the abuse, describes his own moral dilemmas and twisted logic. He describes in detail his interactions with ecclesiastical hierarchy and how he was continually handed new opportunities to abuse. He admits that he should have been removed and more should have been done. He also hopes to make things right by writing a letter to each of his victims.

Deliver us from Evil is most effective when it counters Father Ollie’s testimony with that of his victims and their families. In contrast to the priest’s easy candor, feigned lapses in memory, and over-reliance on euphemisms, his victims are wounded, scarred, and angry. It’s clear Father Ollie is still the sick manipulator who devoted much of his priestly energies to grooming victims, and it’s clear he doesn’t really get what he did. His suggested solution, to meet his victims face-to-face and apologize (hoping not for a hug, but perhaps a handshake), is essentially akin to re-victimization.

Towards the end, however, the film gets sidetracked with heavy-handed moral outrage (the newscast seen at the beginning of this clip). Abuse victims pull a stunt at the Vatican. Crusaders for victims rights are given free reign to analyze the shortcomings of the Church. It’s a shame, really, because the message doesn’t really need reiteration or amplification. It’s damning enough on its own.

Doubt (2008): Not a documentary, but a play-turned feature. Doubt’s stellar cast includes Meryl Streep as a harsh, authoritarian nun, Amy Adams as a young, slightly naive nun, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a young, charismatic priest.

Adams stands in for the viewer, a new arrival at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, trying to understand the internal politics of the place.

Give credit to Hoffman for a nearly flawless performance of a priest who is a gifted communicator, a modernizer, and yet falls under suspicion. Streep is brilliant as always, in her portrayal of a hurt human being who only allows herself to be the school’s no nonsense bad cop.

It’s hard to say much else about this film. It’s heartbreaking.

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