Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Queue It Up: Deliver Us From Evil

A few weeks ago, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig called Washington, D.C.’s new Nationals Ballpark a “cathedral.” Tomorrow he’ll be right. As you no doubt know, the pope is in town here in the nation’s capital, with Mass at the ballpark to come tomorrow, leading to lots of inner-Beltway buzz and even more concern from local residents about how the man-in-white’s visit will affect auto and Metro commutes for the next few days.

But Pope Benedict XVI started making headlines before he reached American soil. Yesterday, from his Alitalia jet, the pope said he was “deeply ashamed” of the clergy sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. Catholic Church in recent years. “We will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future,” he said, sounding like a guy who got Wi-Fi at the Vatican only last week and just learned of the atrocities that corrupt Church officials took pains to keep underground for decades.

Nice try, your pontiffness.

As someone who grew up going to Mass every Sunday and who attended a Catholic high school, I know firsthand that the Catholic Church isn’t entirely monstrous. But these sex-abuse scandals weren’t limited to a few black sheep. They were also the result of fraudulence at the shepherd-level, and there’s a big difference. Which brings us to today’s rental recommendation.

If all the news coverage of the past decade hasn’t convinced you that the Catholic Church knowingly ignored problem priests while attempting to avoid responsibility in these sex-abuse cases until it ran out of other options, I urge you to watch the documentary Deliver Us From Evil, which was one of my top-15 films of 2006.

At its most basic level, the documentary is a story of one flawed priest. But thanks in large part to some shocking deposition footage in which Church officials eagerly hide behind their lawyers – something tells me that’s not what Jesus would do – it’s also an unsettling glimpse under the hood of a broken organizational machine.

My original 2006 review follows:

Deliver Us From Evil
I believe it was comedian Damon Wayans who observed, “I like the idea of people, but people always ruin it for me.” For the past 15 years that’s the way I’ve felt about organized religion. It’s a wonderful idea, with the potential to bring out the best in humanity, but the price of unity is that such goodness can be tainted by a few Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells. And it can be completely undone by the likes of Oliver O’Grady and Roger Mahoney.

The latter two men are at the center of Amy Berg’s spellbinding documentary Deliver Us From Evil. O’Grady is a non-practicing former Roman Catholic priest living in Ireland, and Mahoney is the active Archbishop of Los Angeles. Twenty-five years ago, both men were in Stockton, Calif., where O’Grady did more preying than praying, abusing the trust of his position to sexually assault several children, while Mahoney, the local bishop in charge, overlooked his flock instead of overseeing it.

Berg doesn’t use these men to undermine Catholicism specifically or religion as a whole, but what she does do is explore their sins with more honesty and depth than the Catholic Church seems intent to employ. Relying on superb journalistic instincts, Berg uses an inside-out approach that in a mere 111 minutes goes from depicting O’Grady as a single, despicable falling star to demonstrating his place in a Catholic solar system filled with pedophilic meteors (shocking statistic: over the past decade, hundreds of abuse-against-minors charges have been issued against priests in California alone).

Berg accomplishes all of this without relying on sensationalism or grandstanding (minus perhaps the Vatican trip, which smells of Michael Moore). Her film is heartbreaking, revolting and sometimes – like when the oh-so-pleasant O’Grady reflects on his decades of abuse with a twinkle in his eye – just plain creepy. Yet all the while it’s respectful. And when O’Grady’s victims (including hoodwinked parents) detail their abuse, they do so willingly, bravely and, one hopes, cathartically – their trust in the filmmaker unmistakable.

That O’Grady served a paltry seven years for his abhorrent crimes, and that Mahoney has managed to avoid conviction, demonstrates how difficult it is to crack the Catholic ranks. Watching police interrogations in which Mahoney and other men of the cloth hide behind lawyers, it’s evident that many high-ranking Catholic officials may never be legally condemned. But it’s worth believing in heaven and hell just to imagine the sentence St. Peter will hand down when these wretches reach the Pearly gates.

Still, future damnation isn’t a substitute for action in the present. Thus, Berg’s film is a public service, forcing us to face the truth not only about O’Grady and Mahoney but religion as a whole. Watching the movie, I thought of Michael Caine’s memorable lines in The Prestige: “You’re looking for the secret,” he says, “but you won’t find it – because you want to be fooled.” Deliver Us From Evil reminds us that illusions can be dangerous.

In July 2007, Cardinal Roger Mahony issued an apology after 508 victims (508!) reached a deal worth a reported $660 million. "I have come to understand far more deeply than I ever could the impact of this terrible sin and crime that has affected their lives ... I apologize to anyone who has been offended, who has been abused ... It should not have happened and should not ever happen again."

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]

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