BY NOEL HOLSTON
May 15, 2005
There may be Roman Catholics who will regard "Our Fathers," Showtime's Saturday 9 p.m. movie about the church's pedophile priest scandal, as more exploitation, more Catholic-bashing. Olan Horne has another word for the film: "courageous."
Horne is one of the victims. In 1970, consumed with guilt and shame, he confided to Rev. Joseph Birmingham, a friendly, new priest at his church in Lowell, Mass., that he was being sexually molested by a member of his family. Birmingham first coaxed a graphic description of the abuse from him and then asked Horne to show him his genitals. Horne was frightened. He was 12. He did as he was told.
"Showtime has been as courageous as any individual who decided to come forward, because there's still a stigma attached to this," Horne, a butcher by trade, told a group of TV writers in January. "Nobody can have a healthy conversation. I have a family that has difficulty even talking about the issue."
Horne didn't step out of the shadows and speak up until he was middle-aged. An earlier victim of Birmingham, Bernie McDaid, recalled that he did tell his parents and that they reported the priest - in 1969. The priest was transferred. To Lowell.
"The Catholic Church said that they went and got him help, but they never did," said McDaid, now a painting contractor. "The records show differently. The fallout from this is huge, and it needs to be exploited more. We need to talk about it more because the damage, as far as I'm concerned, they raped my soul. OK? They took God from me at age 11, and that needs to be known."
"Our Fathers" is arguably the best film Showtime has yet produced, one that matches anything its premium-cable rival, HBO, has done in terms of production values and social relevance.
The cast is heavy with respected stage-screen veterans, many of whom, according to executive producer-director Dan Curtis ("The Winds of War"), sought out roles. The big names include Christopher Plummer, who portrays Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of the Boston diocese who resigned in 2002 in the face of louder and louder protest. Brian Dennehy is Rev. Dominic Spagnoli, a priest who was booted from his church for complaining loudly from the pulpit about the church's inaction on its pedophile problem. Ted Danson is Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who started representing a few sexual-abuse victims, wound up with more than 80 and won them a $10 million settlement. Ellen Burstyn has a riveting cameo as a working-class matron who confides to Garabedian that all seven of her sons were molested by their parish priest.
The movie is shocking, though not so much for the reason you might assume. The molestation scenes are kept to a representative few and, even then, rendered by director Curtis with restraint - nauseating horrors are implied but, mercifully, not shown.
No, the jolts come more from seeing and hearing high-ranking Catholic clergy plotting a strategy of stonewalling and silence with their attorneys and public relations advisers in ways - and occasionally in words - that bring to mind Richard Nixon's notorious Oval Office tapes or even HBO's "Deadwood." There's some profanity, yes, but more than that it's the bare-knuckle boardroom attitude. This could be Enron's bosses under siege.
"A real-time history"
"Most of the dialogue is taken verbatim from my book, which is a piece of journalism - you know, kind of a real-time history," said David France. He said that anything that isn't an exact reproduction of what he was told in interviews "at least represents the substance and the intent of the speaker."
France's book is "Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal," published last year in hardback to considerable acclaim and now out in paper. France said he worked on the book and the screenplay, the latter in concert with Thomas Michael Donnelly, more or less simultaneously. "He was writing a page or two behind me the entire time," France said.
The screenplay required drastic condensation - the book is almost 650 pages long, spans a time frame of about 50 years and involves hundreds of characters - and it shows occasionally in the movie, particularly in the first half. With so much jumping back and forth in time and so many characters to establish, an excess of informational dialogue is hard to avoid.
Still, Donnelly's scenes of adult survivors of abuse, most of them tough, blue-collar guys, finding each other and sharing their stories are deeply touching. They're the emotional core of the movie. None is more intense than the sequence in which Horne (played by Chris Bauer, previously sensational as an ill-fated union boss in HBO's "The Wire") bluffs his way into Cardinal Law's residence and confronts "His Eminence" with a living, breathing, hurting example of the abuse he has been so unwilling to acknowledge even in the abstract.
"Don't turn away from Christ, Olan," a shaken Law tells Horne. "He didn't fail you. I failed you."
Donnelly and director Curtis allow Law several moments of apparently sincere contrition. In another scene, the cardinal, dared by Horne, meets with a group of abuse survivors and their families and listens ashen-faced to their stories of depression, broken marriages, drug abuse and suicide. But the filmmakers also pointedly remind viewers, in where-are-they-now text at the end, that after acknowledging that he and his office had responded to complaints about pedophile priests by simply reassigning them to new parishes, the Vatican gave him a prominent ceremonial job in Rome. Though the film's epilogue doesn't mention it, Law was recently seen on worldwide TV saying one of the funeral masses for Pope John Paul II.
France said the church's response to "Our Fathers" has been silence. "They haven't said a thing to us about the film," he said. "I think I can say with some authority that the act of revelation, the publication of the book, was received enthusiastically by the Catholic community, by Catholic organizations of all stripes, left and right. But the church itself, the institutional church itself, said nothing one way or the other."
Couldn't film in Boston
Filming took place in and around Toronto - using an Episcopal church. "We couldn't film in Boston," France said. "We tried to get permits to film in Boston. We couldn't."
He insists the purpose of the book and the movie is not to bash but to encourage continued discussion and promote healing. "I'm hoping that we're now in the transition to this kind of new challenge," France said. "And that's to see how the church will rebuild itself, will regather its victims, will pull its family together, will respond in the future to allegations, will seek to really chart that new course. I'm hoping that projects like this film will help spark that discussion in the future."
Horne, who is involved with the church hierarchy in the Boston area as well as with abuse survivors, said keeping communication open is imperative. "If we didn't do it, they wouldn't understand our pain," he said. "And they wouldn't understand, as Cardinal Law said, the pathology."
Even more emphatically, Horne suggested that we, as a society, need to pay more attention to the larger problem of child sexual abuse. "This is not a Catholic issue," he said. "I was abused not only by a priest, but also by somebody associated with my family. It is so easy for us to push this over to the Catholic church and say, 'Look how horrible this is.' It is horrible, but I have some bad news for you. It's happening to people you know, and it needs to be dealt with."
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.