June 10, 2005
Into the light
Film on priest sex abuse scandal doesn’t
To someone of even average intelligence, homosexuality and pedophilia have absolutely nothing in common. Yet, enemies of GLBT citizens have often conflated the two to further their agenda of equating homosexuality with deviancy.
One of the areas where the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia has been of catastrophic proportions is within the Catholic church. Scandals across the United States and elsewhere in the world have focused intense attention on the Vatican and other church bodies, condemning them for not dealing with priest sexual abuse head-on.
More importantly, the church has used its own homophobia to turn attention away from their misdeeds and to try and turn pedophilia into a gay issue. The church has also used homophobia to scare and shame victims from coming out and telling their stories.
Now, a Showtime film called Our Fathers not only takes on the atrocious way in which the church has handled sexual abuse--of both young boys and girls--but also seeks to dispel any notion that homosexuality is synonymous with pedophilia.
Based in out writer David France’s investigative work, Our Fathers is a serious examination into a world kept dark and secretive for far too long. France was a senior investigative editor at Newsweek until 2003 and he has written two books, most recently Our Fathers, an investigation into the Catholic church sexual abuse crisis that was published in 2004.
Several films have developed from France’s work, including the landmark Thanks of a Grateful Nation, a controversial miniseries about the first Gulf War, and the Peabody Award winner Soldier’s Girl, about Pfc. Barry Winchell’s murder at Ft. Campbell, Ky., also set in the world of homophobia and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
The story of Our Fathers begins in early 2002, when a group of Boston Globe reporters exposed a sexual abuse scandal involving Father John J. Geoghan and the city’s Cardinal Bernard Law. Geoghan was the abuser and Law failed miserably to deal with the scandal within his diocese.
Enter Mitchell Garabedian, one of the first few lawyers who attempted to take on the Catholic church. In the process he uncovered more and more victims, secret church documents, pages of court records and private correspondence incriminating Geoghan, Law and the church beyond any doubt. The film shows that Law knew about the abuse as early as 1984 when the church silenced Mary Ryan, a mother whose seven sons had all been abused.
The survivors and victims are featured heavily in the film, including the pioneers who helped lead the whole lot out of the darkness and shame. Angelo DeFranco, Olan Horne, Gary Bergeron, Bernie McDaid, and Tom Blanchette are pivotal to the case that Garabedian builds.
The film also touches on the abuse by Father Joseph Birmingham, Paul Shanley and a dozen other Roman Catholic priests.
Into this mix comes Father Spagnolia, one of the few priests who condemned the cover-up from his own pulpit. Here the church releases its wrath and revenge, upset at Spagnolia not toeing the party line.
Because of his public outrage, a past relationship with a man is dredged up, proving that the church is all too willing to use homophobia to attack both victims and whistle-blowers. The irony is that Spagnolia’s relationship had occurred during a hiatus from the priesthood. The church even manufactured charges against Spagnolia that he too had abused children, although to date no such evidence has emerged.
In fact, Father Spags, as he was affectionately known in his congregation, says at one powerful point in the film, “Homosexuality has nothing to do with pedophilia.”
The film is strong for the most part and the all-star cast does wonders with this touchy material. Christopher Plummer as Law is superb, portraying his loathsomeness with a hint of humanity that makes the story so much more complex. As Garabedian, Ted Danson turns in a marvelously restrained performance, giving gravitas to one of the heroes in the case.
As Father Spags, Brian Dennehy is full of righteous anger and loathing towards the church’s refusal to do anything until it was way too late for too many innocent victims. And Ellyn Burstyn has a wonderful cameo as Mary Ryan, the silenced mother of seven wronged sons.
The pacing of the film is nice as is the dark-toned cinematography. The film avoids many of the pitfalls of lesser-made movies of the week, yet the younger Geoghan is portrayed almost with a cartoon-like edge to him, somewhat diminishing his true power to damage.
Father John Geoghan was sentenced to ten years and was later murdered in his prison cell. In December 2002, the late Pope John Paul II accepted Law’s resignation as archbishop of Boston.
Ironically, in June 2004, it was announced that the late pope had appointed Law to a ceremonial job overseeing one of the four major basilicas of Rome, St. Mary Major. This was seen as a further kick in the face to the victims in that granting Law such a prestigious appointment showed that even the pope, contrary to popular opinion, was not completely serious about punishing the abusers and their protectors. At John Paul’s funeral, Law conducted some of the ceremonies.
The perseverance of Garabedian, the other lawyers and the exposé by the Globe resulted in a final settlement between the diocese and Garabedian’s clients of $10 million, awarded to more than 86 plaintiffs. In 2004 the Archdiocese of Boston announced that it was closing 65 parishes.
The scandal continues to reverberate as more and more cities and countries are grappling with a long history of child abuse by priests and even longer and more heinous cover-up by the so-called servants of God.
This is a film that is a must-see for everyone. Particularly in these days where the religious right is trying to prove its morality over that of all others, this film proves without a shadow of a doubt that religion and immorality, crime and corruption are not mutually exclusive.
With the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, the homophobia of the Vatican has been upped a few notches, proving that the Garabedians and Spagnolias of the world will be all the more necessary if justice is ever to be completely accomplished.
Our Fathers will continue to play on Showtime through the summer.