Oct 19, 2014

Faith, Doubt and Sexual Abuse in Film and Fiction = Amended Reviews

This is an amendation and extension of my previous posting.

In this posting, I deal with three cinematic and fictional treatments of practicing Catholic priests whose faith is profoundly challenged by the revelations of the sex abuse scandal in the Church. I haven't forgotten the Synod on the Family, just finished in Rome. I continue to believe the vacillations over language dealing with LGBT persons was a moment of grace, one of those rare moments when we are given a glimmer of light and (hopefully) the grace to continue onwards in faith and trust in the Lord, who guides the Church in ways far beyond our comprehension. That doesn't take away from or diminish the scandalous fact that the abuse crisis was sidestepped by a Synod dealing with "The Family," and by implication the threats to its integrity in these days. What could be a greater threat than the abuse of its children? And all those men in the Synod hall - some of whom are criminal abusers because of their participation in the coverup and the rest - who may remain 'innocent,' in degree -are nonetheless tolerating, accepting and protecting the criminals in their midst.  This is the nature of the Catholic Church today as its institutional leaders quibble over English words like "Welcome." Yes, the Spirit is truly among us, but so are the criminals. They are us and we are them and that fact must not be forgotten. 

I just finished watching the very interesting, absorbing crime film, The Calling, with Susan Sarandon (the lead) and Donald Sutherland (in a supporting role). Ms. Sarandon is the local police investigator charged with tracking down a serial killer, who appears to be dispatching his victims for religious reasons. As it turns out, his victims are all terminally ill and are willingly surrendering to his 'final treatment,' much like Dr. Kevorkian.  But there is more to the story than just that, much more in this very contemplative examination of faith, death and dying. Donald Sutherland has a brief, but memorable cameo as a kindly, wise Catholic priest who helps Sarandon decipher a Latin clue in the case. As it turns out, however, Sutherland is at the heart of the case. In the past he ran an orphanage for young boys and tried to find them homes. In one particular case, two orphan brothers were sent to his care. He could only find a home for one of the brothers and the other he kept and raised at the orphanage until his maturity. Father Sutherland and his staff didn't ask too many questions of the prospective parents in those days. In other words, they didn't require a very extensive background check. The result of their lack of scrutiny in this particular case was that the boy was sexually abused for years by his adopted parents and eventually committed suicide. The surviving brother? Well, I'll leave that unclear, because I've already given too many spoilers. But it's a very interesting take on the abuse crisis, because I'm sure most viewers would expect Father Sutherland or one of his fellow priests to be the abusers. Not in this case. The film has other fish to fry and does so with an adroit combination of harrowing suspense and deep contemplative calm - which will put off most impatient blockbuster saturated viewers.

At one point, Sarandon asks 'Father' Sutherland "And do you really believe this stuff?" He replies wistfully after a thoughtful pause, with a slightly wearied smile, "I did....yes.....once. But times are different now.  Unwavering faith in the Church is ... difficult to sustain. Perhaps...um...I think quite possibly... with good reason." Sutherland's portrayal is nuanced, gentle, wise and sad and through his character's flickering faith we see glimmers of a deeper hope, if only for brief moments. Towards the end of the film, however, Sutherland recites the Lord's Prayer with the kind of heartfelt sincerity and profound faith that only a great actor can deliver. There is a depth of belief here, and love for the divine mystery, that is all the more mysterious for existing in such a dark night. He tells Sarandon, "Back then, people had a deeper faith." She replies, "Blind faith." He answers, "Profound faith." I should have known that Susan Sarandon would not take a part in an ordinary slasher film. Sutherland is only on the screen for a short ten minutes, but it is one of the most profound characterizations of priestly service and faith in recent cinema history. 

Sutherland's portrayal is matched, if not surpassed by Brendan Gleeson, in one of the outstanding films of the year, Cavalry.  Gleeson portrays a wearied but stalwart Catholic priest in a small Irish village. It is an outstanding  characterization of a Catholic priest of profound, unwavering faith in the Divine, but very little faith at all in the institutional Church he serves.  Gleeson encounters a myriad set of problems in his small village, including the despair of his own daughter whom he fathered as a married man before his wife's death and his entrance into the priesthood. Gleeson also must deal with the scandal of the sex abuse crisis right within his own parish, and the full horror of the Irish scandal hits home. For Gleeson is being stalked by a victim of priestly sexual abuse, who is seeking vengeance upon any priest chosen at random, since, he believes, most victims of priestly sexual abuse were chosen randomly by the abusers. His intent is to kill the priest.  Gleeson turns in a staggering performance  of a man of faith struggling through dark times when God is silent and the lights  in the Church seem to have been extinguished. Yet something remains out of the emptiness and the silence, something that gives Gleeson's character the inner strength to make the necessary and final sacrifice. He goes down to the beach to meet his 'accuser' head on. So good I saw it twice and will see it again. To date, the definitive cinematic treatment of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church - in Ireland or anywhere else for that matter. 

And that in turn leads me to John Boyle's deeply affecting novel examining the Irish Catholic sex abuse scandal through the life of one Irish priest - A History of Loneliness. It is a beautiful, sad book written with exquisite simplicity, economy and grace. I was hoping it would treat the abuse scandal through the eyes of a man of faith similar to the above two examples of Donald Sutherland and Brendan Gleeson. However, Boyle takes an entirely different tack. His narrator, Father Odran,  is a shy, retiring, passive soul, with no real evidence of a genuinely living faith at all. The incidents of abuse Father Odran Yates encounters in his priestly ministry are seamlessly interwoven into all the other aspects of his life, and that is the book's great strength, because it makes the abuse incidents all that more shocking. We follow Odran's struggles to deal with his mother dying of cancer, his sister stricken with premature dementia, his seminary roommate accused of endless crimes of sexual molestation of young boys - while being moved from parish to parish. Most horrifying of all - in a scene that is actually not described, but only hinted at - Father Yates' own priestly vocation began after a moment of sexual abuse. After catching him in his bedroom lying on top of a local girl, Odran's mother invites the local parish priest to have a talk with the boy. The priest asks him, "Are you a dirty, dirty, boy, Odran, are you, are you?" with a lascivious prurient interest that is chilling. He asks him if he has been lying with those 'slutty girls, those slutty slutty girls." Have they been tempting him to abandon his boyish innocence. Then the priest places one hand on Odran's knee with the words, "It's just a bit of fun," and the scene fades out. We don't need to know what follows, but it is all the more horrible for not being described.

Next we see Odran walking downstairs and into his kitchen after the priest has left. His mother, who had recently lost her husband and Odran's father, when he committed suicide, taking his younger brother with him as both of them drown in the sea. greets him with glowing joy, She recounts the news, "Oh thank the Lord, Odran. Father has confirmed my deepest belief. You do have a vocation to the priesthood." Odran understands that his mother needs some 'supernatural sign,' to sustain her religious faith after the terrible suicide of her husband and murder of her youngest son.  And Odran simply accepts the judgement in a rather passive manner and goes off to the seminary, where he discovers the routine life suits him. He becomes ordained and lives a quiet life as a librarian in a boys boarding school, until the bishop one day transfers him to a parish, much to his dislike. There he encounters a young gay boy who comes out in front of his mother in the priests' parlor. He also has several run ins with parents who are outraged that he is found 'alone' with one of their children. HOw times have changed and the priest can no longer be trusted. Occasionally, Odran as the narrator returns to the scene of his early abuse, but only to reiterate that it is too horrible for him to either contemplate ir or describe it. And yet it formed part of the foundation of his vocation - a vocation, as his roommate points out to him at the end of the book - is no vocation at all, but only an escape. This incident of abuse occurs early in the book and the reader is haunted by it all throughout the remainder of the story.  Odran has never developed a mature religious faith in anything, he has simply accepted his life and it's routine passively without question, all the moral decisions having been made for him.

I found this novel, in its understated elegance, to be one of the most devastating indictments of the abuse scandal in the Church one could hope to read, and certainly the most outstanding treatment of the abuse scandal in the Irish Church. I have to say, though, I remained somewhat puzzled by Boyne's authorial choice to use a passive narrator, one who does not act decisively in his own life, but simply lets events and other persons decide for him. This leaves a certain emptiness at the core of the book which I don't think is very satisfying fictionally. Possibly the author is making some sort of statement about the immaturity of faith of a number of practicing Catholic priests. 

One interesting segment of the book, however, deals with Odran's years in Rome as a student, when he is assigned the very prestigious job of serving evening tea to none other than the Pope himself. At first it is Paul IV (just beatified today). And during his term of service, Odran becomes infatuated with a young waitress at a cafe near the Vatican and faces the first real crisis of his vocation. He visits her nearly everyday and there encounters the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani. Boyne is at pains to depict Luciani as a genuinely saintly, friendly, wise and compassionate man, who befriends the young seminarian and advises him on his struggles. When Paul IV dies and Luciani is elected as Pope John Paul I, Odran continues his duties of serving the Pope his evening hot drink....until one fateful evening, having an emotional crisis of faith, Odran misses his duties - for the only time in his tenure. And it is that very night that Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I,  is poisoned, as many of us believe. I found this a very interesting aspect of Boyne's novel, that he subscribes to the 'theory' that Luciani was indeed murdered and makes this such a central event in his young protagonist's life. Father Luciani, John Paul I, is the only decent, genuinely spiritual Catholic figure in the entire book. What is Boyne's message there, I wonder? That the genuinely holy are murdered? Or that genuine holiness cannot long survive within the institution?  Luciani is the only light Boyne as author allows to shine within the Roman Catholic Church of his novel. Interesting. A strange and troubling book, as it indeed should be, given its subject matter. What makes it so impressive is that the incidents and stories of sexual abuse, as I noted above, are woven so seamlessly and naturally into the tapestry of a whole human life, the life of Odran Yates, a boy who never quite grew up into a man and who's path in life was set by a horrific moment of priestly sexual abuse. The finest fictional treatment of the sex abuse crisis I've read, sobering, disturbing and profoundly sad. Unlike the two previous film treatments, there is no profound faith to sustain the priest, Odran Yates, only the memories of the past and thoughts of a life that might have been. Devastating.

We've seen a fair number of films (and books) to date that deal with the abuse crisis from the point of view of the abused, but these three treatments above look at it from the point of view of practicing Catholic priests, whose faith is challenged by the magnitude of evil subsisting within the church. Very interesting treatments. Take a look at this list (as of 2013) of the most memorable films on the subject. I've seen them all. Silence in the House of God must be added to the list. 

More reviews tomorrow of the images of the Blessed Mother in the recent Czech films, Divided We Fall and Muj Pes Killer (My Dog Killer).


Kittredge Cherry said...

I jotted down these movies to watch when they become available. Susan Sarandon has been a fave of mine since “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and of course “Thelma and Louise.” I look forward to seeing her tackle church-related issues.

I also stopped by to let you know that my new book on the gay Passion of Christ was covered in the gay media of the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic:

The headline says, Kontroverzní kniha líčí na 24 malbách Ježíše jako mladého gaye (“Controversial book recounts the 24 paintings of Jesus as a young gay.”)

Jayden Cameron said...

Oh dear. Kitt, I just saw this comment. 4 months late. Something must be amiss with my email notification system. So glad to see the Czech link to your book! Jesus as a young gay, what a great way to put it!