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.
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.
The 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.
See, 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.)
And 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.
So 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.