Documentary Gives A Human Face To Both Victims And Abusers

Film #8:  Deliver Us From Evil (2006)
Director:  Amy Berg

Deliver us from evil posterI write this just a couple of days after the Academy Awards, where Spotlight was named Best Picture of 2015. I’m happy about that win, having named Spotlight as my favorite movie of the year. In 2002 the investigate team at the Boston Globe took on clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, and the resulting series of articles helped bring about change in how the Church responds to abuse not only in Boston but around the world. Spotlight tells that story – of committed journalists doing good by telling the truth about something that really matters. It’s a hard movie to watch, though, because of its subject matter. Even in a dramatized film, it’s difficult to hear the pain and disillusionment of those who have been hurt not only by sexual abuse by the failure of those in power to protect them.

And that dynamic makes the documentary Deliver Us From Evil an even more challenging film to watch, and yet still valuable. Deliver From Us Evil follows the career of one pedophile priest who, despite the accusations reported to his superiors, is moved from parish to parish in the Los Angeles archdiocese, leaving a trail of victims behind him. Director Amy Berg, a former CNN journalist, follows the facts; but the real power of this documentary lies in the voices of the victims and the abuser. Berg had the participation of the priest himself – Oliver O’Grady – a gray haired, twinkly eyed, Irishman with a lilting voice and a ready smile. Given his easy demeanor, O’Grady could be cast in a remake of Going My Way; but he sounds like a sociopath, and listening to him makes Deliver Us From Evil almost a horror movie. O’Grady lightly recalls his victims, recounts his patterns of abuse with the casualness of someone talking about failing at a diet. At one point he invites all of his victims to come visit him, hoping they will shake his hand and wish him well. Eventually O’Grady reveals that he, too, was sexually abused by a priest as a child (driving home the biblical truism that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children across generations). That history of abuse is not an excuse for O’Grady’s behavior, of course, nor is it an excuse for the failure of church leadership, particularly Archbishop Roger Mahony, to protect parishoners.

Documents and interviews highlight the Church’s culture of settling suits and silencing victims, but also troubling ideas about sexuality that impeded progress.

Church leaders were too quick to see pedophilia as a “gay problem” when the victims were boys, and less severe when the victims were girls. In a court deposition Roger Mahony says that he knew there were accusations that O’Grady had abused both boys and girls, but he didn’t connect them as part of the same pattern because of the gender difference. Oliver O’Grady makes his own situation clear early in the movie when he says, directly, that he is not sexually attracted to women or men – just children, and his job as a priest and a Catholic school administrator gave him ready access to victims.

Aside from the chilling interviews with O’Grady, Berg finds the most power in letting victims speak, particularly the Jyono family. Bob and Marie Jyono trusted Oliver O’Grady so completely that they frequently let him stay in their home, not realizing that he was sexually abusing their daughter, Ann, from the age of 5 to 12. Bob Jyono’s rage, grief and guilt are almost unbearable to watch. Ann, now middle aged, has somehow managed to retain her faith, but her father feels utterly betrayed by both the Church and God. A scene in which Ann covers her face and weeps as her father explains that he no longer believes in God drives home the same point that Spotlight made so well: sexual abuse is, inevitably, also spiritual abuse. There is hell to pay for church leaders who betray the people entrusted to their care. In one of his more difficult sayings, Jesus told his disciples that if someone causes “one of the little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)  Watching Deliver Us From Evil, Jesus’ words made perfect sense to me.  Note:  Clergy sexual abuse is not a “Catholic problem”.  Research suggests that it is as common – perhaps even more common – in Protestant denominations.  As a church leader I didn’t watch Spotlight and Deliver Us From Evil thinking, “Thank God we’re not like that!” but with a renewed commitment to honestly reckon with any abuse in my faith community.  I hope both films have the same impact on other viewers.


Bonus Pick:  Higher Ground (2011)
Director:  Vera Farmiga

higher-ground2It’s very strange to see your subculture accurately depicted on screen. Higher Ground shows the Evangelicalism that I grew up in, and it was both a pleasure and a pain to watch.  Vera Farmiga directs and stars in the story of a young woman’s dramatic conversion to Christianity followed by a long pilgrimage which doesn’t end where most Christians would hope.  Still, the markers of American Evangelicalism (especially a few decades ago) are so accurate, and the doubts and questions that arise so authentic that I watched the movie with an almost disorienting sense of recognition.  I know this world:  I’ve lived in it, wrestled with it, and left it behind for what I genuinely hope is higher ground.