In the elevator riding up to a screening of the documentary Deliver Us From Evil, a fellow attendee, his voice the dictionary definition of sarcasm, asked, “So, ready for a great movie about Catholicism?” I stared blankly at him and wished I were a Methodist.
Here we go again.
Deliver Us From Evil centers on Oliver O’Grady, a laicized California priest and convicted sex offender, three of his victims, and the local church leaders who allegedly transferred him from parish to parish while knowing of prior accusations against him. One of those leaders happens to be Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who served as bishop of Stockton, O’Grady’s former diocese, from 1980 to 1985.
Directed by Amy Berg, the film is a rare example where the priest/perpetrator is given a voice, and the scenes with O’Grady, the movie’s real strength, are hair-raising. Interviewed in his native Ireland, where he was deported after his 2000 release from prison, he euphemistically describes “cuddling” and “hugging” as part of his love and concern for children. When pressed, he becomes more explicit, clinically describing his modus operandi in grooming victims.
But despite his grandiose declaration that this represents a “confession of my life,” O’Grady clearly has not owned up to his crimes. The supposedly apologetic letters he writes to his victims completely miss the mark in terms of a sincere attempt at forgiveness and reconciliation. You cannot fault the recipients for their amazed horror; this is a man accused of sexually assaulting a 9-month-old baby girl.
In a visual manifestation of disgust, Berg keeps herself at arm’s length from O’Grady with long shots and camera work that obscures his face. Yet in doing so, she prevents the audience from gaining a clear picture of his motivations and inner turmoil. Perhaps the real lesson of her film is that to search for reasoning or even insight from a pedophile as sick as O’Grady is a fruitless task.
Viewers implicitly turn away in disgust as well, and thus O’Grady remains a shadowy, sub-human figure prone to self-serving comments. When he accuses diocesan officials of ignoring his pedophilia, saying he should have been removed from ministry, one can’t help but question his credibility.
The victims and their families provide the emotional core of the movie. Ann Jyono, whose abuse began at age five, tearfully describes her family’s implosion when her parents learned the truth about a man they had trusted and even defended for years. The experience has driven her father to deny God’s existence: “All of the rules, they’re made up by man.” His renunciation of faith pricks the conscience and girds the film’s point that abuse is not just sexual but also spiritual in nature.
Together with deposition clips of Cardinal Mahony and the Stockton Diocese’s former vicar general claiming ignorance of the scope of O’Grady’s illness and crimes despite testimony and documentation suggesting the contrary, Deliver Us From Evil provides powerful evidence that church leadership preferred the silencing of scandal to children’s safety. Berg says Cardinal Mahony declined to be interviewed for the movie. His silence is deafening. Caught up in legal wrangling, O’Grady’s case, like so many others, demands a forthright accounting that goes further than the $14 million the Stockton Diocese has already paid in lawsuit settlements regarding the former priest.
“Perhaps the real lesson of Deliver Us From Evil is that to search for reasoning or even insight from a pedophile as sick as O’Grady is a fruitless task.”
But while Berg claims the lack of narration equals a lack of editorializing, at times Deliver Us From Evil veers close to conflating the wrongs of abusive priests and the bishops who shuffled them from diocese to diocese with a wholesale indictment of the Catholic Church. When a movie opens with a quote from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, you can be sure what follows will be fairly non-canonical as well.
To put the sex abuse crisis in greater context, the film relies almost exclusively on interviews with people with direct ties to victim advocacy and/or law firms involved in suits against the diocese. Although both Cardinal Mahony and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops refused to go on camera, it strains the imagination that Berg couldn’t have found balanced, informed sources on church doctrine. Patrick Wall, the lone talking head identified as a “theologian,” is a former priest with no doctoral degree who works for John Manly, one of the victim’s lawyers—a link that doubtlessly deserved to be disclosed. Manly himself is given free rein to offer misleading pronouncements on church teaching.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest who was one of the earliest to sound the alarm over clergy sex abuse, back in 1985, explains that the church is a “monarchy,” and the lay faithful have a duty to be passive and obedient. To be sure, the explosion of the abuse scandal on a national scale gave rise to a call for greater lay involvement, the most prominent examples being the Voice of the Faithful organization and the implementation of a lay National Review Board. The “monarchy” model, however, presents an overly simplistic portrait of church hierarchy. Some may recognize here an implicit reference to the popular election of bishops, a complicated and controversial proposal that should not be reduced to a method of abuse prevention.
We also get the requisite arguments against priestly celibacy, but to locate the root cause of pedophilia in celibacy is as misguided as the direct link that some have drawn between homosexuality and pedophilia, a link the film fights to dispel. The press notes for the film state that the church’s “repressive environment that denies, and arrests, normal sexual development” has created a predisposition for pedophilia. Celibacy is a choice to be made by mature individuals. If anything should be faulted, as the review board concluded in 2004, it is the priestly formation process, that appears to have skirted honest discussions about sexuality and probing questions as to young men’s fitness for the vocation.
At the end of the film, O’Grady says that while the church is going through a difficult period, in the end it will survive. The comment provoked audible snickers in the theater, the verbal equivalent of eye rolls. After all this horror, how on earth could any sane person believe this statement? As sick as O’Grady may be, however, he’s right. The church will go on. The question for all of us Catholics is where is it going?
Of course we’ve seen this—or at least read this—all before. With its clichéd background chanting, camera pans of crucifixes and clips of incense-wielding clergy,” Deliver us from Evil at times feels tired, yet it provokes horror and dismay all over again. The central message bears repeating. When Fr. Doyle apologizes on behalf of the church to Ann Jyono, despite his having nothing to do with her abuse, she remarks that no one has ever said “I’m sorry” to her before. It’s not only the saddest statement in the movie, it’s evidence that we haven’t come very far at all over the past four and a half years.