Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): V 1; L 1; S/N 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak first to his disciples, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 3\Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.
Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.
A lawyer meets with one of his clients to discus the $10 million settlement of a suit against the most powerful institution in the city. The client does not want to settle, saying that the money does not matter to him—he wants the facts of the case brought out into the open, and he wants a public apology. Needing all of his 27 clients to agree before the settlement can take place, the lawyer tries to convince the man, telling him that this is the best they can hope for, and that the only way their opponent will change is to hurt him, that money is the only thing they understand. Were we to see this scene out of context, rather than as a part of the movie Our Fathers, we might think that the opponent was a big power company as in Erin Brocovich, or a giant corporation as in A Civil Action. How sad and shameful is it that the oppressive institution in this film is the Catholic Church! This Showtime movie, based on Newsweek’s David France book Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, provides us with a stirring picture of courage and cowardice, of faith and the willingness to risk everything in a struggle to bring the shameful truth to light.
Jumping back and forth between the present and the times thirty or more years earlier when priests took advantage of young boys in their charge, the film focuses on lawyer Mitchell Garabedian’s (Ted Danson) struggle to find justice first for Angelo DeFranco (Daniel Baldwin) and then for all the others who come to him–and who ingeniously find other victims who had contained their shame and remained silent for so many years. First meeting with Bishop Murphy (Kenneth Welsh) and the diocesan ivy league counsel Wilson Rogers Jr. (Will Lyman), it seems that Mitch is out of his league (Wilson scornfully calls him “a nobody”), but the bush league lawyer has two things that all the ivy league training cannot provide–a passion for justice mixed with a loathing for what the hypocritical church did to the boys, and facts, lots of them, despite the Church’s working with the courts to keep records sealed from public scrutiny.
Without becoming too graphic, the filmmakers show several instances of predator priests taking advantage of boys, confident in the unquestioning trust their parents have in them, and thus assured that none would believe the word of a child, even if he could overcome his shame and fear and report what had been done to him. The incidents have long lasting effects on the boys, some of them being unable to maintain the intimacy of a marriage, and virtually all of them dropping out of the church, many hating it because they identify it with their persecutors. These desperate men not only welcome Mitch, but some go on to form a self-help group.
The filmmakers try to give a balanced picture of the sordid scandal, with gifted actor Christopher Plummer portraying Cardinal Bernard Law as a confused man who claims that he passed pedophile priests on to other parishes because he believed that they could change. He does have the courage to attend a meeting of the self-help group where he offers a lame apology–but he refuses to resign his post. There is a scene in which, summoned to Rome, he has an audience with Pope Paul II, who does not want him to resign. Countering the various pedophile priests is Father Dominic Spagnolia (Brian Dennehy), who does not hesitate to denounce Cardinal Law from his pulpit. There is a suggestion of a plot to frame him by a false accusation of child molestation, and when that charge seems to be overcome, another dark secret from his past is revealed. It seems that archdiocese is willing to do anything to someone questioning its hypocritical relationship to the victims of its priests.
The film suffers from so many victimized characters that at times our attention seems divided. Father Spagnolia’s story is told in just enough detail to gain our interest, but not enough to be satisfying–a whole film could have been devoted to him, or better, this slightly over two-hours long film could have been expanded to a miniseries so that we could have come to know all the various characters in more fully. However, the cast is so good–both the actors portraying the major characters, and those on screen for just a few minutes (Ellen Burstyn as a mother whose seven boys were all molested is on screen for just five minutes or so)–that we are drawn into their stories, and with Mitch, come to despise the church hierarchy that seems more interested in protecting the good name (and assets) of the institution than in helping those victimized by its priests.
The film, however, is not anti-church, just pro-gospel. It deserves to be seen and discussed by a large audience. Those wanting to explore the themes of guilt and forgiveness will especially appreciate the film, as the two scenes described below demonstrate. The DVD also features a short “making of” documentary with the real victims telling their stories. This in itself could be used as a launching pad for a church school class probing the story behind the headlines.
Good teaching/preaching moments:
1) Tom Blancette (Hugh Thompson), one of the victims decides to visit in the hospital his abuser, Fr. Birmingham. The dying priest apparently cannot speak, but he is fully conscious as his visitor introduces himself, telling him that he was one of the boys in his parish whom he victimized. We can see on the visitor’s face the conflicting emotions that have been tearing at him, and we can also see the priest’s awareness in his face, his eyes a bid widened, no doubt in fearful apprehension. We expect the visitor to launch into a tirade, or, when he brings up the subject of forgiveness, to demand an apology. Instead, he asks the priest to forgive him—for all the years that he has hated him. Tears well up in the face of the priest, matching those streaking down Tom’s face. He even offers a prayer in which he asks for the priest to be healed!
2) A second moving scene is when Olan Horne (Chris Bauer) confronts Archbishop Law, who then agrees to the challenge/invitation to attend a meeting of victims abused by the priests. The prelate takes his seat at the table facing the room full of men, many of them there with their spouses and parents. He hangs his head in shame as two of the men share their sad story of how they were taken advantage of by predator priests. Then the presider, mentioning that there are a number of victims who are not present because they committed suicide, asks those who knew or were related to them, to stand. A surprisingly large number rise up. The cardinal keeps his eyes lowered, until one woman, angered at this, yells to him, “Open up your eyes and look!” Her rebuke become symbolic, reaching back to the time when the cardinal first learned of the problem, and did nothing.