By Mark R. Day
At a poignant moment during the recent Los Angeles premiere of the documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, the father of a clergy sexual abuse victim sobs on camera that he no longer believes in God. His remark provoked a smattering of applause, followed by a solitary voice. “I believe,” piped up a man in the audience.
These were just a sample of the emotions elicited by the film, produced and directed by Amy Berg, an investigative reporter who has followed this story for CNN and CBS News. Mostly, there were groans of disgust from the audience, gasps of indignation, and spurts of laughter.
The latter occurred when members of the Catholic hierarchy, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, tried to explain why they allowed Father Oliver O’Grady, a known pedophile, to continue ministering in the Stockton California diocese, despite documented evidence, even police reports, that he had raped children.
What makes this film convincing is that even O’Grady himself, now living in Ireland, confirms this. As a perpetrator, turned accuser, he says to Berg in the film: “I should have been removed and attended to and (Mahony) should also have followed up by attending to the people I harmed.”
Subsequently, Cardinal Mahony is seen in a videotaped testimony, saying under oath that he was unaware of O’Grady’s molestation of children, even though abundant church files attest to the contrary.
Defending Mahony, archdiocesan spokesperson Tod Tamberg has accused Berg of highlighting anti-church (read anti-hierarchy) tirades of victims’ defense attorneys who have profited from these cases.
What Tamberg failed to point out, however, is that the most severe critic of Mahony and other bishops in the film is Dominican Father Tom Doyle. Doyle is a canon lawyer and a priest in good standing who has hammered away at the bishops’ lack of accountability on sex abuse issues over the past 20 years. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spurned a 1982 study that he co-authored on clerical sexual abuse, and the hierarchy has had him fired from two posts, including a military chaplaincy, for his outspoken critique of their policies.
Doyle, who is also a medieval historian, says in the film that the Catholic Church, despite the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still a monarchy. The clergy maintain all the power at the top, he says, without accountability, over a powerless laity whose sole function it is to “pray, pay, and obey.” Doyle believes this top down structure is responsible for harboring priest pedophiles and for re-victimizing their prey when the latter seek redress from the church or from civil courts.
A key element of the film was Berg’s ability to connect with O’Grady in Ireland where he was deported after serving seven years in a California prison. There she conducted several lengthy on-camera interviews with him and we see him walking in a Dublin park, in closeproximity to children at play.
Father Oliver O’Grady walking in a Dublin park, in close proximity to children at play.
Berg acknowledged that after eight days of interviewing O’Grady, she collapsed in her hotel room and slept for two days. “I was like achy and sweaty,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “It was like a physical and emotional breakdown.”
O’Grady admits earlier in the film that he suffers from a disassociative mental disorder which disconnects him from any emotions or feelings of guilt for countless sexual assaults on victims ranging from a nine-month-old baby to the mother of an adolescent victim.
Another plus is Berg’s first rate technical team. Danish cameramen Jacob Kusk and Jens Schosser create haunting and eerily lighted church and monastic backdrops for O’Grady’s interviews, reinforcing the fact that he committed his crimes in the context of church ministry. His nauseous sermonettes about wanting to re-connect some day with his victims are material for a true horror show. Oliver O’Grady comes across as a soft-spoken monster.
Such powerful scenes have led the International Documentary Association to select Deliver Us From Evil as one of 15 films it wants nominated for a Academy Award.
Another powerful sequence takes place when Father Tom Doyle travels to Rome with three O’Grady survivors and their relatives. As they attempt to deliver a letter to the pope, Vatican guards hustle them away. One imagines a group of serfs at a medieval palace requesting some form of redress from the nobility inside. The moat is closed. The request is denied.
The O’Grady story is not an isolated event. The latest scandal to erupt concerns Father Marcial Maciel, 86, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, an ultraconservative religious order that requires unquestioning obedience to the papacy and to Maciel himself. Nine men have presented credible testimony that Maciel sexually abused them in their early teens. This is documented in a recent book, Vows of Silence.
Pope Benedict XVI, pressured by mounting evidence against Maciel, recently retired him from public ministry, but failed to remove him from the priesthood. The late Pope John Paul II, confronted with similar allegations, publicly lauded Maciel at a 2004 Vatican ceremony and has called him “an efficacious guide to youth.” This has led some Vatican experts to wonder aloud if the canonization of John Paul is still on the fast track.
The experts say that protecting pedophiles is not characteristic of a saintly life.
Mark R. Day is an Emmy award- winning film maker and a journalist. He can be reached at mday45@sbc global.net