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Vol 39 No 4


Francis Mansour LCM

Charles Hill

Terry Lyons

Vincent Battaglia

Sophie McGrath RSM

Peter Malone MSC

Kevin Mark



The abuse of Minors: A cinema resource


IN TERMS OF THE quality of life, one of the greatest threats is abuse of the young.

Not only has it been a horrendous revelation over the last twenty years, even more so during the last ten, that adults at home, in institutions and in organised rings have been physically and sexually assaulting children, but that members of Churches and an alarmingly high number of clergy and members of religious orders have been accused of this kind of activity and have been found guilty in courts and have been gaoled.

This survey of films will confine itself to sexual molestation and abuse of minors, specifically young boys and adolescents with reference to both church and secular cases. The checklist at the end of this article provides some data on films concerning the abuse of young girls and adolescents.

Until the 1980s, most people did not think of going to the police to press criminal charges. There were very few precedents. We are learning now that concerned parents did go to ecclesiastical authorities but that there was a lack of awareness about how serious the matters really were, that there were no protocols to guide church leaders in how to deal with clergy misconduct of this nature, that there was an immediate concern for the welfare of the accused rather than concern and compassion for the complainants and a belated switch to language of victims and perpetrators. The behaviour was secret, hidden, smoothed over with lying deception by perpetrators, the exercise of emotional blackmail and the reinforcing of guilt feelings in the victims. While errant clergy were moved from place to place to avoid scandal without the realisation that they would offend again, or were sent to institutes for therapy, there was little help, counselling or compensation for the victims. In fact, worldwide, secular and church authorities are still trying to grapple with psychological understanding of the mind and emotions of an abuser.

Again, worldwide, many secular and ecclesiastical authorities have not yet come to grips with the appropriate protocols of how to deal with cases morally and legally.

Some dioceses and religious orders, especially in English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, Britain and Ireland, have taken very serious steps to do the right thing for victims and to deal honestly and justly with perpetrators. However, the US experience of 2002, which led to so many victims making accusations with the consequent financial compensatory claims that have bankrupted several dioceses, has a continued impact in so many dimensions of church life: the role of the priest, the psychological and emotional health and maturity of men and women in responsible ecclesiastical roles, the erosion of trust among the faithful, the enormous anger and resentment, the long-term ill effects of abuse on the victims. Belatedly, revelations have emerged from continental European countries. Many are waiting for scandals to be revealed in Asia and Africa.

News headlines have not been reticent about the Church. While focusing on Church personnel being abusers—and one must because, along with parents and teachers, they are the people who should be above suspicion and should be the most trustworthy—the cases against workers in child-care institutions and schools have been frighteningly numerous.

There have been a number of movies dramatising this theme.

The Catholic Church and Abuse
Although it does not portray abuse, the Irish film, Lamb was released as early as 1986. Liam Neeson portrays a Christian brother who has become disillusioned with his life as a brother and goes on the run with a young boy that he wants to save from the harsh regime of his school.
Also early in the process that led to exposure of widespread abuse by clergy, in 1990, HBO produced a telemovie on the first reported case of abuse of a boy in Louisiana in the mid-1980s. It was called Judgment. Keith Carradine and Blythe Danner starred as the parents of the boy and David Strathairn was the priest in question. It was strong and surprising drama at the time. Audiences were not used to seeing this kind of case and behaviour. David Strathairn's performance is well worth seeing as he embodies a range of emotions of a lonely priest, a predatory priest, an exposed priest. Judgment anticipated the outcry and church procedures of 2002 but shows the Bishop and his Vicar General and their handling of the case, their juridical issues and the pastoral issues.

Soon after, 1992, the Canadian production, The Boys of St Vincent, dramatized the true story of an orphanage where some of the brothers on the staff abused their charges. As with Judgment, this was new on television screens and there was a certain amount of disbelief that such events could take place – only to be verified on a much more global scale a few years later. The success in Canada, with Canadians looking at their own scandal, led to a sequel the following year, The Boys of St Vincent, 15 Years Later, which focused on the court cases against the staff and the traumatic effect the abuse had had on the boys as they grew into adults. (When commentators mention the American film of 2005, Our Fathers, as something of a breakthrough, stating that this kind of film could not have been made ten years earlier, they are clearly not aware that The Boys of St Vincent did precisely this.)

Another film of this period that included a physically abusive priest whose sadistic behaviour leads to his being killed with a vengeance is the science-fiction film, Lawnmower Man. Starring Jeff Fahey as Jobe, a simple gardener, who lives behind the church, tends the ground and talks to the crucifix as he cleans the church, the film is based on a Stephen King story. A scientist (Pierce Brosnan) is able to transform Jobe into a genius but, like Dr Frankenstein's experiment, he creates a monster. The abuse theme is not to the fore but it is presented quite strongly.
Just as the scandals were beginning to emerge around the world in the mid-1990s, the thriller, Primal Fear, was released. It was basically a courtroom drama and a murder mystery featuring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. However, it used a church sex scandal as a basis for the plot. An archbishop is brutally murdered. It emerges that he had hired adolescents to act out sexual behaviour in front of a video camera. The killing is vengeful, a retaliation for the humiliation and shame. In 1996, this was more shocking than it would be soon after when bishops were not exempt from scandal.

One of the more horrifying of films on abuse of adolescents, male and female, was Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo: or the 120 Days of Sodom. It was denounced on its release in 1975 and still remains banned in some countries. Pasolini was very serious about abuse. However, his focus was not on individuals so much as on society and authority figures. He transferred the Marquis de Sade's inferno of persecution and exploitation to World War II and the Republic of Salo. It is both visually beautiful and visually horrifying as Government, Justice and the Church authorities use and abuse the young people. At the end, Pasolini likens their suffering to that of Jesus on the cross and invites us to reflect on human nature, lust for power and the consequences in depraved lust. He was murdered soon after the completion of this film so its indictment is something of his final testament.

In more recent years, there have been some very strong films. Ireland's Song for a Raggy Boy (2003) shows physical and sexual abuse of boys in an Irish school. Patrick Galvin, author of the novel on which the film is based, spoke about the effect of writing the book and of collaborating on the film as an 'exorcism' of the past for himself. Often the victims want only an acknowledgement by the church and the perpetrators that these events happened.

This film is set in 1939 in a school reformatory for boys, some younger than twelve, managed by the local bishop with a priest in charge and staffed by brothers. The brother-prefect is a stern disciplinarian who resorts to excessive physical punishment and humiliation of the boys. One brother is a sexual abuser. There is only one sequence of sexual abuse, visually reticent, but all the more horrendous because of this. It is a disturbing reminder of the reality of such abuse, the pathology of the brother and, particularly, the pain of the reluctant victim who speaks of this in the confessional and is advised to keep what has happened to him to himself.

The physical abuse is alarmingly violent and, dramatically, over the top. Many older Catholics, however, will have stories of these kinds of punishment. For the sake of the narrative, they are put together in a hundred minute film which can give an impression that this was the sole way of dealing with problems.

Song for a Raggy Boy, like the other Irish films (and the presentation of dominant clergy and brothers in such films as Ryan's Daughter, The Butcher Boy or Lamb) asks pertinent questions about the severity of the Irish Church, the collaboration with the state in running institutions of correction (and using the same methods of discipline and punishment that were prevalent in those times in state and other institutions) and the screening and training of clergy and religious. This film is a reminder that religious men who entered an order in their mid-teens and underwent this kind of formation absorbed it and saw it as the pattern for their ministry in schools but applied it sometimes in unconscious compensation for their lack of emotional development.

Pedro Almodovar is Spain's leading director, with a strong international reputation and two Oscars (for All About My Mother and Talk to Her). He was initially provocative with his films of the 1980s, especially in his attitude towards the Catholic Church and in his treatment of sexuality, especially of homosexual themes and characters.

When Almodovar announced production of Mal Educaçion (Bad Education) in 2002, there were immediate claims that the film would be anti-clerical. It would be a film about his own experiences of Catholic education in Spanish schools of the 1960s. This was re-iterated in articles and interviews.

However, Almodovar himself disclaimed the anti-clerical charge. He said that had he made the film twenty years earlier, it would have been quite anti-clerical. He says that he has now mellowed and that, although he does not have what he calls 'the luxury' of believing in God, he values much of what he experienced in the Church (especially in liturgies, celebrations and art) during his childhood. He says he asked God to give him faith when he was a boy but God did not give it to him. He also said recently that the priests at school said that watching films was a sin and that he had to choose sin. These themes are incorporated into Bad Education.

While the abuse issue is important, Almodovar spends more time showing the emotional behaviour of the abusing priest, his obsession and emotional immaturity, but puts more blame on how the priest handles the situation and jealously exploits his authority and power within the school. This is portrayed in the visualizing of a story written later by the victim. We then see the priest in real life, having left the priesthood and married, but still a sexual predator.

Almodovar's treatment of abuse is more complex and thoughtful than what might have been expected. His judgments are mellowed at times with some compassion for the emotions of the perpetrator. He creates a powerful scene where the priest rector of the school sits in rapt attention at the community dinner table while the ten-year-old boy with whom he is infatuated sings a song for his birthday. Alarm and disgust at paedophiles has obscured the need (certainly in the media and other public arenas) for trying to understand the mentality of the emotionally stunted abusers, their attractions and their exploitations.

Almodovar's sympathies are with the victims, although he also raises questions about adolescent attitudes towards sexuality, especially in the context of Catholic upbringing, Church teaching and a sense of sin. Audiences will leave with a great deal to think about concerning all the central characters, about what is real, about what is memory, about sexual orientation, about sexual intimacy, about childhood experiences and their effect on adult development or the impeding of development, about moral choices and about God and religion.

On the strength of Pianese Nunzio, 14 a Maggio (Pianese Nunzio, 14 in May) (1996), Italian attitudes towards paedophilia were not nearly so stringent as those in English-speaking countries. Fabrizio Bentivoglio portrays a crusading priest in Naples. He is confronted by the criminal elements as he fights for justice. However, in his personal life, he becomes infatuated with a thirteen-year-old boy. This relationship seems to be presented, if not favourably, at least without qualm. His enemies use this relationship to destroy him.

It can be noted that in 1999 an Indian film, Split Wide Open, about changes of lifestyle in Mumbai and the influence of media talkback shows from the west in opening up Indian society to sex topics more explicitly than in the past raised the issue of abuse in a sub-plot. A religious brother, who is presented sympathetically and as zealous in his work for street kids and social justice issues in the slums, has also molested some of the boys. Split Wide Open indicates that this is a topic that could emerge in Asian cinema. Already, a number of directors from the Philippines, including its most prominent director, the late Lino Brocka, have made quite a number of films about the exploitation of boys and young men (including by military and naval personnel from the former US base at Subic Bay) and the clubs/brothels with the macho dancers, many of whom are trying to raise money for their impoverished families.

There have been more films which have had nothing to do with the church but show how sexual abuse is more widespread in the community than most people would have anticipated. When religious people see these films, secular case studies, they can understand better the mind of the abuser, the strategies and tactics they use on their prey and the devastating effects that their behaviour can cause for their victims.

Insight into the Psyche of the Abuser
Abuse of children is not entirely new to cinema. There are many examples of films about dysfunctional families. One has only to think of two of James Dean's films of the 1950s, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. Charles Dickens was writing about the use and abuse of children by Fagin and Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, a novel which has been frequently brought to the screen, even as a musical. Fritz Lang made a dark film about a perverted abuser and killer with Peter Lorre in 1931 in Germany, M– which Joseph Losey remade twenty years later in the US with David Wayne.

There have been speculations about pedophile rings which have been verified by police investigations in recent years and the arrests of offenders in many different countries from information gathered about users of child pornographic websites. In 1988, an Australian film, The Everlasting Secret Family, painted what seemed at the time (but does not seem so now) a lurid picture of men in high places in society linked by a kind of Masonic brotherhood, selecting their victims from private schools and perpetuating their predilections into the next generation. The film received limited release and was reviewed by many critics as fanciful or far-fetched. In 1999, a British film, Lost Son, told the story of a private investigator (Daniel Auteuil) discovering a child trafficking ring exploiting boys for sexual slavery.

One of the first of the recent films showing a predator was screened on American television at the same period as Judgment, Bump in the Night (1991). Christopher Reeve appeared as a University professor of English literature who abducts a young boy. While the principal focus of the film is the anxiety of the boy's mother and the recovery of her son, the picture of an adult man who seems to be comfortable only in the company of a child, taking him to the zoo, talking to him at his level, shows the emotional retardation of this kind of molester.

Institutional abuse was featured in Sleepers (1996). A group of young boys in a juvenile institution are abused by one of their supervisors, played by Kevin Bacon. As adults, they combine to get their revenge by taking him to court, even persuading their priest friend (Robert de Niro) to perjure himself during the trial even though what he said was the moral truth.

Todd Solontz's Happiness (1999) was a strong film on a range of sexual issues including a father attracted to the schoolboy friends of his eleven year old son. Dylan Baker portrayed the torment of this man, the tactics and rationalizations he used and the shame of his exposure. Tim Robbins won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying a man severely affected from the abuse by two strangers, one posing as a priest, the other as a police officer, two men who should be able to be trusted completely, in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003). Even though the abused boy has grown up and married, the trauma is deeply embedded in his psyche and surfaces in rage against a man he suspects of being a pedophile.

Another significant contribution to this series of film is L.I.E. (2001). The title obviously highlights the theme of truth and its absence. However, it actually refers to the Long Island Freeway, the setting for the plot. Howie, a teenager (Paul Dano) and his friends burgle houses and he is caught by a respectable businessman, Big John, who creates the impression that he has been a marine and a spy (Brian Cox playing sinister). He has a live-in houseboy, uses pornographic websites and takes Howie under his wing in an exteriorly paternal manner in order to exploit him. While the film is inconclusive, it is a disturbing picture of a predator and an adolescent who thinks he is worldly-wise but is deeply naïve.

The awareness of abuse in our societies has led to wariness and suspicion, many adults fearing to exhibit any affection towards children, especially by touch. We find echoes of this, sometimes incidentally, in films on different subjects. Some lines were introduced into Finding Neverland (2004), the fine portrait of J.M.Barrie, author of Peter Pan, that some people thought, without genuine foundation, that Barrie's friendship with the Llewelyn Davies children meant that he was a pedophile. In Second Best (1994), bachelor William Hurt applies to adopt a young boy whose father is in gaol. Authorities are suspicious as to his motives and investigate accordingly—and find no cause.

A strong film on this topic was the first film directed by Mel Gibson, Man Without a Face (1993). Nick Stahl is a disturbed young boy whose mother cannot communicate her affection. During the summer holidays he is tutored by a recluse (because of his scarred face) played by Gibson himself. They form a strong bond and the boy improves personally and academically. However, there are suspicions and allegations about the recluse, a former teacher, and the teacher disappears. It shows how insidious suspicions can be and can destroy lives.
This theme of suspicion is featured in a short British drama, Loving You (2003), again a film about a teacher (Douglas Henshall). This time he is a child psychologist who is accused of abusing little children during his sessions with them in a classroom. The accusations are ultimately found to be misguided and false but not before they have destroyed the psychologist's career and poisoned his relationship with a fellow teacher when he is thought to have molested her daughter.

The most disturbing film about false accusations is Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1996), based on actual events in California during the latter 1980s. A family which runs a pre-school finds itself arrested and charged with a wide range of offences, many of which are bizarre. Three generations of women are gaoled but the main suspicion falls on the son (Henry Thomas), a dropout who is goodnatured but whose track record for reliability does his credibility a great deal of damage. The case went on for seven years, attracting huge media attention (and blame) until all the members of the family were acquitted.

Indictment sets its scene particularly well and shows how it is possible to have widespread abuse in a teaching situation. However, the film also highlights difficulties about memory and suggestion. The film shows how the whole case was initiated by a psychologically disturbed mother with family problems. The fears of abuse snowballed with parents up in arms and the children making all kinds of accusations, many of them outlandish. A lynching atmosphere developed. The experts who worked with the children are ultimately shown to have had very limited training, used dubiously frank methods to elicit information from the children and worked on a presumption of guilt on the part of the McMartins. The children, whose interviews were taped but not viewed in their entirety by the prosecuting team because of lack of time, tell more and more preposterous stories. The film is a cautionary story concerning uncovering repressed memories and being susceptible to suggestion.

Mysterious Skin
Probably the best film so far to understand the psyche of the abuser is Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin (2004). He has adapted a novel by Scott Heim. The novel came out in 1995 when charges were beginning to surface more widely in various organisations, secular and religious. This film focuses on two families. The paedophile is the little league baseball coach. The setting is the late 1980s, early 1990s.

The film is strong in its portrayal of sexual abuse. However, Araki keeps a balance between being prurient and showing the dramatic and dire impact of sexual abuse. While some audiences may find it disturbing, it is a necessary disturbance, learning to understand the reality of paedophilia, the psychology of the abuser, the long-lasting effects of the experience on the abused. In fact, the film is visually reticent, the directness being restricted to verbal frankness—which is much easier to absorb than visual explicitness.

The film focuses on two very different boys. Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a young hustler. Brian (Brady Corbett) is an introverted young man who has no memory of being abused, no idea that he has been abused. He has so successfully created a psychological block that, when he sees a television program about UFOs, he begins to think that the missing hours of his life, that he has no way of accounting for, were caused by his being abducted by aliens. By the end of the film, when the two adolescents come together, they go to the house where the abuse happened and the hustler explains to the innocent boy what actually took place. This is a harrowing experience as the young man realises what has happened to him, the memories come back. This is the moment when the film ends, leaving the future for the two boys and a sense of wonder and anticipation as well as alarm for the audience.

The film is disturbing almost from its beginning. The initial focus is on Neil, speaking in voiceover and commenting on his attraction for the baseball coach and hinting at the implications of this. However, it is the pre-pubescent Neil who is speaking in this way. And this is already shocking in its way. However, Araki is suggesting that for some youngsters, their sexual focus emerges at a young age. This does not necessarily lead to abuse but that in this period, where so much attention has to be on victims, there may be some deep-level response to the sexuality but not to elicit abuse. This is an area that has not received a great deal of attention. In this screenplay, it emerges that Neil has been complicit in the sexual behaviour. He has also been seduced into being an ally of the abuser in his activities with other boys. This compounds the evil compulsions of the perpetrator, the abuse of a child and the contamination of another child into being an abuser.

Neil talks about his orientation. He indicates what happened during his visits to the coach's house. Much of this is visualised in the early part of the film—the more seductive aspects rather than sexual activity. While the audience tries to grapple with understanding the mentality of the young boy, the screenplay portrays the coach as a complex, naïve but knowing seducer, who uses the language of games and seeming innocence, who is really an emotionally and morally immature boy. It is on this basis that the abusive sexual compulsions build up. Alarm and disgust
at the paedophiles has obscured the need for trying to understand the mentality of the emotionally stunted abusers, their attractions and their exploitations.

Mysterious Skin does not purport to probe all aspects of abuse. Rather, in focusing on the two boys, it shows one who is conscious of what happened to him, his part in it and the consequences, the other who is oblivious but knows there is something wrong with him.

Family Abuse and Adolescents
A more recent theme in films about abuse is that of molestation within the family. The most powerful of these is the Scandinavian film, Festen (1998), where a family gather to celebrate their father's birthday. It is one of those films where secrets and lies must out and the adult son reveals how his reputable father abused him (and his mother knew but did not act on her son's behalf).

A bullying father (Robert de Niro) is the villain of This Boy's Life (1992) with Leonardo di Caprio. An abusive father (Eric Stoltz) is the subject of The Butterfly Effect (2004) which imagines the same characters in different stories if a detail in their lives had been changed (like the flutter of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon having an effect all round the world).

More forthright in its portrayal of dangers of abuse by close family friends is Chromophobia where Ralph Fiennes' art connoisseur is infatuated by his god-child and films him provocatively and keeps the images on his computer.

Oscar-nominee for Best Documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, seems like a fiction. The Friedmans seemed to be a typical American family, especially with their love of capturing all their memories on film and then on video. The film builds up a portrait of Arnold the musician and teacher father, Elaine his strong-minded wife and their three sons. Suddenly, their world was overturned as Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, were arrested for child molestation, charged, with both of them eventually going to jail.

Andrew Jarusick became interested in their story, doing investigative research about the case. The eldest son, David, told him about the hours of footage he had. A documentary using this footage, using television news material from the time of the trial and contemporary interviews emerged. The material has been edited together so that the audience sees the chronology of Arnold's life, marriage and family, hears the testimony of the principal people involved (especially Elaine, David and Jesse as well as detectives, the judge, lawyers, victims and their parents), sees the footage of how the family behaved at the time of the trial (bizarre, frantic and hostile). The director also makes it hard to know what the actual truth is. One piece of the film, one interview, points in a particular direction of guilt, then another piece throws doubt on what has been said. The evidence for the accusation was testimony rather than physical evidence and this raises difficulties concerning police leading witnesses, false memories, lies and self-defensiveness.

This means that the audience has a great deal to absorb, is continually challenged to try to understand the characters, while being horrified at the charges and the implications about paedophilia. It is both gruelling and challenging.

A series of films by photographer turned director, Larry Clark, shows changing sexual mores amongst adolescents themselves. His film Kids (1995) was a controversial look at teenagers' sexual and drug behaviour in New York City, most of it unbeknownst to their parents. He focused again on adolescents and some of their parents in his Florida-set, Bully (2001), where the nasty rich boy bully (Nick Stahl) manipulates his friends into perverse behaviour until they have had enough and kill him. Clark continued with these themes in a Californian town but went beyond the limits of his previous films in Ken Park (2003). His filming of the teenagers' actual sexual activity, including asphyxiating arousal, raised a great deal of controversy and bans, some critics accusing him of pruriently exploiting the young cast.

A more restrained variation on this theme was the Singapore film, 15, where actual street kids acted out their stories on screen.

Our Fathers
The cinema portrayal of sexual abuse of minors, especially by clergy, led to a dramatization of scandals which rocked the American church. Our Fathers was screened on US cable channel, Showtime, on May 21st, 2005. It was also screened in the market at the Cannes Film Festival for sales for cinema exhibition or television screenings in countries outside the US.

2002 was a most difficult year for the Catholic church in the United States. Many victims of clerical sexual abuse and molestation made themselves known to authorities, especially after the court proceedings against Fr John Geoghan in Boston. It was a harrowing year for these victims with their memories and hurt and for their families. It was also a harrowing year for many in authority in the Church, from bishops to diocesan directors of communication who had to find ways of responding to media demands while always offering compassion to those who suffered. It was a year of apologies. It was a year of judicial proceedings and attempts to formulate appropriate protocols for the American church.

Our Fathers, directed by Dan Curtis, and based on the book, Our Fathers: the Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal, by David France who had covered the story when a senior editor at Newsweek, is a dramatized interpretation of the year in Boston which began with the Fr Geoghan trial, continued with other priests being accused and ended with the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law. The film is generally carefully written, giving voice to a range of perspectives, questions and attitudes that have emerged in connection with the sex abuse cases. The legal aspects of the case are frequently centre-screen. As might be expected, the film is supportive of victims and critical of church authorities, personalities and procedures.

Since the cases were so prominently featured in all the media over a long period, the events are in the public domain. It is part of the healing of memories for the victims as well as for Catholics, both in authority and in the pews, that films like Our Fathers are seen and discussed. When the story cuts deep, it is an opportunity for examination of conscience as well as for atonement. The church has been facing these realities, sometimes forced to face them and reluctantly, but cannot shirk them. It is important to remember, as Cardinal George Pell of Sydney declared after accusations were made against him that he would step down from office during the time of the investigation into the allegations, that he was not above civil law or canon law. The investigation was carried out. The allegations were found to have no substance and he resumed his ministry as archbishop of Sydney. Americans remember that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was falsely accused of abusing a seminarian and went to visit the man in hospital as he was dying. The abuse experience has called for both honesty and compassion in the church.

It can be important for audiences, especially Catholic audiences, to watch dramatisations of cases like those of Fr Geoghan and Fr Birmingham (they are on the record). Newspaper headlines and reports do not always tell the human story behind the media story. Analyses in papers and magazines, on radio and television help to clarify ideas but do not always communicate the experience and the feelings of those concerned. The media of theatre and film are able to do this. (The play Doubt, where a nun suspects a priest of abuse, has just won several Tony awards.] There are quite a number of films dealing with abuse of children, many of them with church themes: Song for a Raggy Boy, Mal Educaçion, The Boys of St Vincent, The Magdalene Sisters…

Our Fathers shows the victims of abuse in their adult years and the damage that they still bear, ranging from low self-esteem and marital difficulties, even to suicide. Sometimes Catholics who have not personally encountered someone who has experienced abuse are not really aware of the consequences of the abuse and the long-term spiritual and psychological damage – and alienation from priests and the church. They are not aware of the constant feelings of shame and self-blame that the victims retain. Our Fathers uses discreetly filmed flashbacks (with the emphasis on verbal communication rather than visuals of the molestations) to bring home the reality of the abuse within the context of family life, school, church and the plausible pretexts that the clergy used to deceive parents and rationalize their behaviour with the children.

The film, which starts with Fr Geoghan's ordination and the bishop asking the seminary rector whether this candidate was worthy, also fills in aspects of the accused priests' lives and behaviour. Opinions of fellow priests are indicated and their wariness. In dramatic terms, one of the most moving sequences has an adult character remember his experiences with Fr Birmingham and then reveal to his fellow-victims that he had visited the priest as he was dying in hospital thirteen years earlier to find some kind of forgiveness for his hatred of him.

Many critics blame lawyers for inflating the cases for the sake of greater financial compensation. This theme is tackled well in the film.Ted Danson portrays Mitchell Garebandian, the lawyer who found himself in deeper waters than he anticipated and pursued Fr Geoghan. He is portrayed warts and all, his callow attitudes as well as his more personal involvement in the cases, his temptations to celebrity as well as his decent behaviour. The screenplay traces the steps he took to find evidence and documentation concerning the priests, letters written by complaining parishioners, a formal report from the 1980s commissioned by the church, which were not made available by Church authorities until a judge compelled them to. The decisions of the Boston Globe to pursue the issues and the people are also dramatized.

Christopher Plummer appears as Cardinal Law. He interprets the Cardinal in a complex way. He is a churchman of the old school who sees it as his duty to protect the church and its reputation. He is a prelate who comes to realize that he has made grave mistakes in judgment—the scene where he speaks of his mistakes to Pope John Paul II has moving moments and takes us into the mind and heart of the Cardinal. The other sequences which repay viewing to try to understand how the Cardinal saw his role include a visit during which one of the victims (who has been ignored and put off even when the Cardinal had said he would meet victims) confronts him in his residence and forces the Cardinal to listen and empathise as well as persuading him to attend a meeting of victims and families where he has a tough reception.

A sub-plot concerning a sometimes disgruntled priest, Fr Dominic Spagnolia (Brian Dennehy in a no holds barred performance) who speaks in his pulpit against Cardinal Law and demonstrates against him sometimes distracts from the main thrust of the film. Towards the end of the film, however, it becomes very serious as this priest has to face his own demons as well as allegations.

Films like Our Fathers are not easy to watch, even for those who do not share Christian faith, because they portray the scandal of men who are publicly committed to God and goodness abusing their trust in a predatory and secret way. The scandals have been more widespread around the world than anyone would have imagined twenty years ago. They have significance for the credibility of the church and the clergy. They have all kinds of repercussions on the faith of the faithful. The financial compensation to victims has led to diocesan bankruptcies and the curtailing of many charity and educational projects.

In these cases, the sins of the fathers affect their victims who need compassion and they affect all those who belong to the church.

Peter Malone MSC , former president of SIGNIS, the World Catholic Association for Cinema, now heads the cinema desk of SIGNIS, world. Recent publications: Can Movies be a Moral Compass? and Lights Camera Faith, The Ten Commandments.

Note: it is easy to say 'what' a film is about and to make a moral judgment; it is necessary, however, to check on 'how' the subject is treated. The following films have a 'how' that repays viewing even if the subject matter is difficult and challenging and aspects of the issues distasteful. They are reflecting the contemporary crises in abuse and sexual misconduct.
For basic information about any of these films, consult the internet on The Internet Movie Database, IMDb.

THE BOYS OF ST VINCENT (Canada, 1992, d. John N. Smith): A semi-fictionalised account of the abuses of boys by teaching brothers in Canada. (A TV mini-series)
THE BOYS OF ST VINCENT, 15 YEARS LATER (Canada, 1993, d. John N. Smith): The abused boys now testify against the perpetrators.
BAD EDUCATION (MAL EDUCAÇION) (Spain, 2004, d. Pedro Almodovar): Contains a sub-plot about a priest teacher who is infatuated by a primary school boy whom he also abuses. (Also focuses on the psychology of the abuser.)
BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE (UK, 1982. d. Richard Loncraine): Dennis Potter's fable about a diabolical but surface charming stranger who insinuates himself into the household of a verse writer for cards, destroys the family and sexually assaults the comatose young daughter.
BULLY (US, 2001, d. Larry Clark): Larry Clark's picture of sexually permissive young people and destructive friendship with sexual pressures and the violent reaction to get rid of the teenage bully.
BUMP IN THE NIGHT (US, 1991, d. Karen Arthur): A kidnapping story with a sub-plot concerning Christopher Reeve as a Literature Professor who is a pedophile and abducts a young boy. This telemovie is insightful in exploring the immature attitudes (despite his high profile profession) of the professor.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (US, 2003,d. Eric Bress and J. Mackeye Gruber): A dramatisation of the theory that when a butterfly beats its wings, the effect can felt halfway round the world. A story of parallel worlds, one of which offers an ugly picture of an abusing father and the effect on his children.
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (US, 2003, d. Andrew Jarecki): Oscar-nominated documentary on an outwardly respectable but dysfunctional family (who had filmed themselves over the years providing home footage for this film) who were accused of abuse of young pupils and brought to trial.
CHROMOPHOBIA (UK, 2005, d. Martha Fiennes): A complex story about families, business, fraud, journalism and truth. There is a substantial sub-plot where a young boy's godfather (Ralph Fiennes) is attracted to him and videos him (and is beaten up and robbed by some schoolboys he has befriended).
DEATH IN VENICE (Italy, 1971, d. Lucchino Visconti): An intelligent version of Thomas Mann's novel which studies an artist on holiday in Venice obsessed (platonically) with a boy.
DEFENDING OUR KIDS: THE JULIE POSEY STORY (US, 2003, d. Joanna Kerns): With the wide use of chat rooms on the internet, predators pose as friends. This telemovie dramatises this phenomenon but also portrays the work of Julie Posey who collaborated with the police in posing as an adolescent to expose perpetrators.
THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND (Australia, 1976, d. Fred Schepisi): Fred Schepisi's semi-autobiographical account of his year at the Marist Brothers' Juniorate at Mt Macedon, Victoria. The setting is 1953 and throws light on how sexuality issues were spoken of in those days, the 'hot-house' atmosphere amongst the boys and the sexual hang-ups of some of the brothers.
DOLORES CLAIBORNE (US, 1995, d. Taylor Hackford): A powerful version by Taylor Hackford of Stephen King's dramatic portrait of a mother alienated from her journalist daughter who is charged with murder. The daughter discovers her mother's love for her and surfaces repressed memories of her father's abuse of her.
THE EVERLASTING SECRET FAMILY (Australia, 1988, d. Michael Thornhill): Frank Moorhouse's novel portrays a ring of predators who hold prestigious and influential positions in the community, a kind of Masonic association who use boys from elitist schools and perpetuate their secret society.
EVELYN (Ireland, 2003, d. Bruce Beresford): When a wife walks out on her husband, his children are sent to institutions for boys (run by brothers) and for girls (run by sisters). More gentle than some other films, but glimpses of harsh Irish institutions.
15 (Singapore, 2003, d. Royston Tan): A striking picture of street kids in Singapore, especially their sexual exploitation. They are played by non-professional actors who have lived this kind of life.
FESTEN: One of the most powerful of the Dogme manifesto films (later written as a powerful drama for theatre). A family gathers for a celebration and one of the sons accuses his father of sexual abuse and reveals the lovelessness and corruption beneath the surface.
FINDING NEVERLAND (US, 2004, d. Marc Foster): A semi-fictionalised story of playwright J.M.Barrie and his friendship with the Lewellyn Davies children which led to Peter Pan and some unfounded innuendo about him and his relationships with the boys.
HAPPINESS (US, 1998, d. Todd Solondz): A serious look at three sisters in a severely dysfunctional family. One is married to a psychiatrist who discovers his pedophile tendencies in abusive behaviour.
INDICTMENT: THE McMARTIN TRIAL (US, 1996, d. Mick Jackson): A telemovie on the McMartin family who ran a childcare centre in Los Angeles and were accused of molestation. After serving prison sentences, they were found not guilty. Testimony against them had come from children being guided in their memories by psychiatrists.
IN MY FATHER'S DEN (New Zealand, 2004, d. Brad McGann): A moving study of a photo-journalist who returns home for his father's funeral and has to face the truth about his father's sexual behaviour. When the young girl he has befriended is killed, he is falsely suspected of abuse.
JUDGMENT (US, 1990, d. Tom Topor): A 1990 telemovie that dramatises the first case that came to light in the US, Louisiana, 1984. Presents the parents' point of view, shows the priest's character and the behaviour of the bishop and his vicar general.
KEN PARK (US, 2002, d. Larry Clark): After Kids and Bully, photographer turned director in collaboration with award-winning cinematographer, Ed Lachman, turns his attention to families in California, once again showing promiscuous sexual behaviour amongst themselves and with adults (graphically photographing sexual activity which is not simulated).
KIDS (US, 1995, d. Larry Clark): Larry Clark evoked controversy with his portrait of New York teenagers and their sexual and drug activity (and the absence of parents). He went on to Bully and Ken Park.
LAMB (Ireland, 1986, d. Colin Gregg): A Christian brother wants to save a young lad (Liam Neeson and Hugh O'Conor) from the harsh life of the school and absconds with him. There is no suggestion of misconduct but the experience leads to tragedy for the brother.
LAWNMOWER MAN (US, 1992, d. Brett Leonard): Derived from a Stephen King story, this focuses on a kind of Frankenstein experiment where a simple gardener, called Jobe (Jeff Fahey), is changed into a genius. Jobe works for a sadistic priest whose motivations seem to be psychosexual.
L.I.E. (US, 2001, d.Michael Cuesta): A powerful film about a sexual predator, pillar of society, and domination of a street kid on the L.I.E. (Long Island Expressway), with Brian Cox as the abuser, Paul Dano as the boy.
LIVE SHOW (Philippines, 2000, d. Jose Javier Reyes): A grim look at the exploitation of adolescents in sex shows in Manila, critiqueing the lack of support from government and church.
LOLITA (UK, 1962, d. Stanley Kubrick), (US, 1997, d. Adrian Lyne): Vladimir Nabokoff's novel about a novelist (1962 version), a professor (1997 version) obsessed with an underage girl and its consequences.
LOST SON (UK, 1999, d. Chris Menges): Daniel Auteuil investigates a disappearance and discovers a world of child trafficking and a ring of sexual predators. Intense picture of an ugly world.
LOVING YOU (THE RAINBOW ROOM) (UK, 2003, d. Jean Stewart): Brief television drama where a divorced teacher has a relationship with a school psychologist who is accused of molesting children in his sessions. An alert to the need for protocols in dealing with children in education and psychological situations.
M (Germany, 1931, d. Fritz Land), (US, 1951, d. Joseph Losey): Grim inter-wars German story (transposed to the US after World War II) where a man who preys on children is pursued by the police and by underworld figures.
MACHO DANCER (Philippines, 1988, d. Lino Brocka): Hard-hitting and explicit story of the exploitation of Filipino adolescents and young men by local men and US personnel from Subic Bay.
THE MAGDALENE SISTERS (Ireland/UK, 2002, d. Peter Mullan): Shows the harshness of Irish family life and of the state in committing girls to institutions run by severe sisters. Visualises the cruelty and aspects of sexual abuse by nuns. Also includes sexual misconduct by the chaplain with one of the intellectually handicapped girls.
THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE (US, 1993, d. Mel Gibson): A moving story where a young boy is coached by a mysterious man who has facial disfigurement. Rumours that he is a molester mean that the man has to disappear for the sake of the boy's future although he follows the boy's career.
MURMUR OF THE HEART (France, 1972, d. Louis Malle): Controversial in its time, Louis Malle's drama of sexual awakening in an adolescent and his mother's role in this awakening.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (US, 2004, d. Gregg Araki): A powerful film about pedophilia (not in a church or religious context but of a sports coach and trusted family friend). Contributes to an understanding of the personality and deceitful behaviour of the abuser but concentrates on the traumatic consequences for the boys. Not so visually explicit, but verbally explicit with an emotionally wrenching finale.
MYSTIC RIVER (US, 2003, d. Clint Eastwood): Tim Robbins won a Best Supporting Actor award for his performance as a man who had been abused as a child by men posing as police and clergy and who has suffered from the trauma all his life.
OLIVER TWIST (UK, 1948, d. David Lean): Fagin and Bill Sykes's control of their gang of boys who pickpocket and thieve is a Dickensian look at psychological and physical abuse.
OUR FATHERS (US, 2005, d. Dan Curtis): Based on the book, this is a dramatic reconstruction of events in the archdiocese of Boston in 2002: the trial of John Geoghen for sexual abuse of young boys, the experiences (and flashbacks) of his victims and those of Fr Joseph Birmingham, the prosecution of the case by lawyer (Ted Danson), the reaction of the church and the criticism of Cardinal Bernard Law (Christopher Plummer) which led to his resignation at the end of 2002. Well performed with a screenplay that voices a range of different perspectives on abuse cases, the law and the church.
PIANESE NUNZIO, 14 ANNI A MAGGIO (PIANESE NUNZIO, 14 IN MAY) (Italy, 1996, d. Antonio Capuano): A priest campaigning for justice in Naples becomes infatuated with a young boy and his opponents use this against him. An ambiguous look at priesthood.
PRETTY BABY (US, 1978, d. Louis Malle): Provocative and thoughtful Louis Malle film about life in a New Orleans brothel, 1917, and the encounter of a prostitute's (Susan Sarandon) 12 year old daughter (Brooke Shields) with a travelling photographer (Keith Carradine). Brooke Shields plays one of the prostitutes.
PRIEST (UK, 1994, d. Antonia Bird): Now considered something of a classic on clergy and heterosexual and homosexual relationships, the harshness of bishops and some clergy and the severe judgments of parishioners. A sub-plot concerning a parishioner abusing his young daughter and her confiding in the priest in the confessional.
PRIMAL FEAR (US, 1996, d. Gregory Hoblit): Courtroom drama of a young man accused of murdering an archbishop who is revealed as a voyeuristic exploiter of young people performing sex acts for him on video.
SALO OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (Italy, 1975, d. Pier Paolo Pasolini): Pasolini's final film is an indictment of the abuse of power. He transfers the Marquis de Sade's graphic tale of Government, Justice and Religious authorities using adolescents as playthings is transferred to a World War II setting in an Italian republic. Banned in some countries, it is visually and strongly verbally explicit but can be seen as more relevant as revelations of widespread personal and institutional abuse has been revealed.
SECOND BEST (US, 1996, d. Chris Menges): William Hurt is a quiet bachelor who would like to adopt a young boy, which raises suspicions and social service officers investigating his motivation and way of life.
SIN CITY (US, 2005, d. Robert Rodriguez): A visual tour-de-force as a graphic novel is brought to the screen with flair and inventiveness. However, it is an ugly and brutal film about violence and revenge. One of its stories concerns a wealthy and spoilt son of a senator who preys on young girls and how an ageing police officer pursues and traps him.
SLEEPERS (US, 1996, d. Barry Levinson): Young boys molested by a supervisor in an institution band together to bring him to court and justice for his abuse. A strong drama with a star cast including Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric and Kevin Bacon as the accused.
SOMETHING ABOUT AMELIA (US, 1984, d. Randa Haines): A powerful telemovie dramatising the case of father-daughter incest geared towards the wide television audience.
SONG FOR A RAGGY BOY (Ireland, 2003, d. Aisling Walsh): Set in a reform school run by brothers (some sadistic, one a sexual abuser) in 1939. Contains a short scene of sexual abuse that brings home the reality of the issue rather than a mere intellectual knowledge or understanding.
SPLIT WIDE OPEN (India, 1999, d. Dev Benegal): Contains a sub-plot of a religious brother who helps street kids in Mumbai, achieves a great deal with them but who also sexually abuses them. Indicates what could emerge from the countries that were 'mission countries'.
THIS BOY'S LIFE (US, 1992, d. Michael Caton Jones): Ellen Barkin brings her young teenage son (Leonardo di Caprio) to a town to start a new life. She marries a respectable citizen (Robert de Niro) who at home and in private is a sadistic and righteous violent bully.
THE WAR ZONE (US,1999, d. Tim Roth): A penetrating study of what seems an ordinary British family and the revelation of the father's abuse of his daughter.
THE WOODSMAN (US, 2004, d. Nicole Kassell): A paedophile is released from jail after serving his sentence and has to deal with his past and his new life.

THE CRIME OF FR AMARO (EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO) (Mexico): Story of an ambitious young priest and his misconduct in a relationship with a catechist (who pursues him) and his pressure on her to have an abortion.
CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE (Ireland, 2003, d. John Deery): Treats the issue of obligatory clerical celibacy, of homosexual relationships among clergy and AIDS as well as double-standard behaviour by bishops and seminary rectors.
MASS APPEAL (US, 1985, d. Glenn Jordan): A 1970s-1980s picture of parish life as well as touching upon the problems of an outspoken deacon, a severe seminary rector and sexuality issues in the seminary.
THE MISSING (Australia, 1999, d. Manuela Albertini): A Vatican priest discovers that he has a daughter from a relationship in Australia decades earlier. She has been abducted and he goes to Australia to help the mother search for her.
MONSIGNOR (US, 1982, d. Frank Perry): Christopher Reeve is an ambitious priest in Rome after World War II who helps to organise Vatican financial affairs, losing his sense of priesthood as well as breaking his vow of celibacy with a nun.
THE THORN BIRDS (US, 1982, d. Daryl Duke): A mini-series version of Coleen McCullough's popular novel has become the archetypal story of a cleric and his affair and his preferment in Rome.
TRUE CONFESSIONS (US, 1981, d. Uli Grossbard): Los Angeles, 1948. Includes a sub-plot about priestly sexual misconduct but focuses on the chancellor of the archdiocese and his handling of problems and their repercussions on his sense of vocation and his spiritualilty.