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Jul 01 2009

Deliver Us From Evil: Atheist Film Festival, Part 1

Part 1 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. Which was a thumping success as far as I could tell. I’m sorry we were only able to see two movies; I hope they can keep doing it.

Deliver us from evilIt’s not like I didn’t know this stuff. I knew it.

But somehow, this movie made it real, and bore the full reality of it in on me, in a way that it hadn’t been before.

“Deliver Us From Evil” is a documentary about the extensive child- molestation scandal in the Catholic Church. And it transforms the horror of what happened into a full-scale moral outrage. Not just the obvious outrage over child molestation and the lives it ruins. Not just the outrage at the priest at the center of this particular scandal, Oliver O’Grady, and his repulsive and baffling lack of moral compass (it’s like he knows what morality is supposed to look and sound like, but doesn’t understand what it feels like or what it means). Not even just the outrage over how the Catholic Church consistently and at the highest levels acted to protect itself and its priests rather than to protect the children who were being put in harm’s way: moving molesting priests around the country, lying to law enforcement, concealing evidence, even paying off witnesses. (And, of course, trying to blame it all on the gays.)

No, what this movie filled me with anew was an outrage over the very foundation of the Catholic Church: the essential nature of its theology and its organization.

O-gradydeliverusfromevilThe movie makes it clear that the child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church is not simply a few bad apples. It’s not even just a case of a few bad apples and an organization’s misguided attempts to circle the wagons. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that vests all of its spiritual connection with God, and all of the possibility for salvation and eternal life, in the hands of a relatively few authority figures. It is the predictable result of a religious organization that makes the organization itself, and its authority figures, a necessary conduit between people and God.

CommunionSee, the point of this film wasn’t “child molestation is bad.” It wasn’t even, “protecting child molesters and concealing their crimes so they can molest again is bad.” You don’t need a documentary to tell you that. No, the point of this film — or one of the points, a point hammered on again and again by people both inside and outside the church familiar with this scandal — is that the basic hierarchy and theology of the Catholic Church is a recipe for the abuse of power. When you teach people — especially children — that the only way to God and Heaven is through the rites of the Church, administered by Church authorities? When you teach people — especially children — that Church authorities have a special connection to God and goodness that ordinary people don’t have? When you teach people — especially children — that defying the Church and its earthly representatives will condemn you to permanent, infinite burning and torture? When you do all that, widespread abuse of power is almost inevitable. (Add to this that when you teach warped messages about the wickedness of sex to seminary students in their teens, and demand that they refrain from it in order to pursue their special connection with God, it’s almost inevitable that this abuse of power will often be sexual.)

2006_deliver_us_from_evil_010And when you have a church hierarchy and theology founded on these ideas — church authorities being special conduits to God, the necessity of going through these authorities and the rituals they perform to gain salvation — then it’s almost inevitable that they would circle the wagons when they become aware of that abuse… and relentlessly stonewall investigations when that abuse begins to come to light.

I mean, the whole institution is founded on the idea that priests are special, holy men of God with an exceptional spiritual power, and that the authority they wield comes not from human beings but from a divine command. Of course they’re going to protect those priests at the expense of protecting children. To do otherwise wouldn’t just make their organization look bad. It would undermine the very foundation that their church is built on. It would force them to rethink everything they believe, everything they’ve centered their lives on.

And people aren’t very good at doing that.

Deliver us from eivl MahonySo instead, they circled the wagons. And in doing so, they made themselves more monstrous than the child molesters they were protecting. O’Grady’s actions, abhorrent as they were, were almost understandable in the context of mental illness. The actions of the Church officials who protected him and countless other priests like him, not out of uncontrollable impulse, but consciously, thoughtfully, with a cool evaluation of the pros and cons, are beyond moral comprehension.

This is a hard movie to watch. And I certainly understand the impulse to not go to movies that are hard to watch. (I’ve never been sorry that I went to see a movie that was brilliant but hard to watch… but I always have to remind myself of that, and the impulse to just see something smart and funny at the end of a long week is a strong one.) But I’m completely glad I saw “Deliver Us From Evil,” and I recommend it highly. It made both the full magnitude and the full emotional depth of this scandal clear to me, and personal to me, in a way that it hadn’t been before. And it made clear in an entirely new way just how deeply religion can twist the moral compass, creating an institution that loudly and publicly cries its outrage over the desecration of a cracker… but that whispers and stonewalls, turns a blind eye and covers it up, when thousands upon thousands of children are being molested by its most trusted representatives.

If you can’t see it in a theater or at an atheist film festival, “Deliver Us From Evil” is also available on DVD.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Noah

    Nice review. I’ll definitely have to watch it when it comes to my local “indie” theater. I am reminded of Doubt, and the feelings that movie dredged up inside of me. Good, painful stuff.
    Noah

  2. 2
    Creepy

    Not to mention the whole masochistic denial of human instinct and sex drive, which can’t lead to anything good. You believe you were created by a god, who gave you a penis and a sex drive, yet you denounce these and torture yourself by depriving your body and soul something it was designed for? Sounds like a recipe for trouble to me.

  3. 3
    CrimsonBeard

    (I haven’t read the previous comments, so I apologize if this has already been mentioned.)
    As excellent and insightful as Berg’s film is, there’s a book on this subject that is at least as significant. The title is “Sex, priests, and secret codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-year paper trail of sexual abuse,” and it’s co-authored in part by Thomas Doyle, the canon lawyer featured in ‘Deliver us from evil.’ This book goes over the history of sex in the church, examines issues relevant to canon, civil, and criminal law, and explores the roots of the current ongoing sex scandal. Very informative, and highly recommended, with the caveat that if you don’t already loathe the church, you will after reading this.
    http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Priests-Secret-Codes-Catholic/dp/1566252652

  4. 4
    Daniel

    You should also add in that it is currently available for instant streaming for Netflix members :)

  5. 5
    Barbara_K

    I was at the festival all day, but was in the small theater during this movie. I just finished watching it on Netflix. To say it distressed me would be an understatement.
    I also got the impression that O’Grady is mentally ill. It’s reprehensible that the bishops kept moving him to new areas that would give him access to even more children. The fingerpointing at homosexuality is just ridiculous and infuriating – the church is acting as an enabler, and is not only unwilling to take steps to protect its parishioners from further abuse, but apparently willing to tar innocent people in order to cover up its crimes.
    The comparisons to behavior commonly seen in corporate environments seems pretty apt. The officials involved are concerned with their own career advancement, and the underlings are conditioned to be deferential. I’ve seen people who are normally independent and outspoken suddenly take on an air of submission around executives, I can imagine that that effect would be even more pronounced if they were convinced that the executives had control over their afterlives.
    I would recommend it as well, but am kind of glad I didn’t watch this on Sunday, I don’t know if I could sit still in a theater for another movie after watching this.

  6. 6
    Rick

    Thanks for the tip. I’ve put it on reserve at my local library. Now if only I could get my catholic friends to watch it so they would stop giving money to that evil organization.

  7. 7
    PdawkinZ

    I hope the argument was better put in the film because all you have there are a bunch of assertions masquerading as an argument.
    If the situation had been exactly the same, but instead of circling the wagons the people at the top chose to immediately hand everyone over and institute an open policy condemning the behaviour from pulpits or whatever that this would have happened? Or are you asserting that would never have happened therefore you don’t need to consider it?

  8. 8
    J. J. Ramsey

    “I hope the argument was better put in the film because all you have there are a bunch of assertions masquerading as an argument.”
    I saw the film just today on Netflix, and I don’t think it was even trying to make the argument that Greta Christina is making. It tells the story of the abuse and how the Catholic Church kept covering it up, but it isn’t about promoting atheism. On the one hand, at the end of the film, one of the fathers of the abuse victims says “There is no God.” On the other hand, one of the advocates on behalf of the abuse victims, Father Tom Doyle, is as far as I can tell, still Catholic. There is even a subtle shot of one of the abuse victims making the sign of the cross within a church in the Vatican.
    The practice of clerical celibacy is criticized, and by Tom Doyle himself, who points out that the popes had originally been married men and argues that the celibacy thing was so that the property of dead clergy went to the Church instead of the clergy’s children. Doyle also takes issue with the idea that a good Catholic is a docile one, saying that the only time Jesus got angry was when he was in a church.
    One can see this film as showing the inevitable outcome of a large institution with screwed up ideas about sexuality, or as showing an outcome that could have been avoided by the Church if it had acted according to its ideals and inspiration instead of acting like a typical corporate institution.
    If you can get this movie, go see it. It’s painful, but worthwhile.

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