The Reeler


October 13, 2006

Deliver Us From Evil

Wrenching documentary looks at a notorious priest and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

Toward the end of Deliver Us From Evil, Amy Berg's crushing look into the role the Catholic Church plays in covering up the child sexual abuse inflicted by some of its priests, Father Tom Doyle, also a canonical lawyer, points out that the only time Jesus got angry was when he went to church. "Pay, pray and obey," is what a good Catholic is told to do, but Doyle, having seen what that particular trinity can be used to justify, will have none of it. "A good Catholic is a revolutionary," he says, "like Jesus."

Here are some possible synonyms for "pay, pray and obey": deception, denial, and deceit. Those are also the characteristics of so-called good Catholics, according to the victims and prosecutors of Oliver O'Grady (above), the California priest who abused and raped dozens of children over 20 years as a succession of bishops played hot potato with the pedophile, moving him from parish to parish and covering his tracks along the way. O'Grady eventually served seven years in prison and was then deported to his home country of Ireland to roam free and unmonitored.

And Ireland is where Berg finds him, ready for his close-up. O'Grady's amenability as a subject is not the most stomach-turning thing about this documentary, but it's close. Watching him parse out exactly what still "kicks his bucket" -- turns him on -- one has to look thrice at this ordinary old man in his wooly grey cardigan: "Children in their underwear? Yes," he says with a twinkle, nodding his head thoughtfully. "Children naked? Yesss," he grins, wagging his chin vigorously, eyes bugging out.

Berg counterbalances the scenes of O'Grady giving an amiable walking tour of his "oopsies" (in a bar, a park, a church pew) with the stories of three of his devastated victims, still struggling 20 and 30 years later with the ramifications of their abuse. Her command of the power generated simply by telling these stories is heightened by the lack of voiceover narration, and Berg slips into regrettable TV magazine tactics (she is a producer for CNN and CBS News) only twice: when O'Grady is shown writing a letter to his grown victims, inviting them over to Ireland for a pint and some frank talk (some actually consider it); and in following two of the victims to Rome, as they attempt to hand-deliver a letter to the Vatican. The unbelievable case of Oliver O'Grady is hardly an isolated one; you might be surprised to learn that the current Pope was in charge of investigating charges of pedophilia in the church from 1978 to 2005, and that George W. Bush recently granted him immunity from prosecution for failing so miserably.

Just as we often rely on wordplay -- or doctrine -- in searching for a foothold on faith (pay, pray and obey), the victims' plight is cast and recast through language. Over and over, O'Grady's superiors downplay his crimes as mere "touching," and as with most predators, O'Grady claims his impulses sprang from "love and concern," an urge to protect. It takes years for the "touching" to be deemed "inappropriate," one Bishop chalks up sex with a young girl as "natural curiosity," and her family agrees to not press charges after being promised O'Grady will be sent to a monastery (he is not). Eventually "offensive" gives way to "abuse"; finally, in a scene so painful it's almost unwatchable, another father, who only learned of his daughter's abuse 25 years after letting O'Grady stay in his home (and after supporting him against his accusers) erupts through his sobbing that she wasn't "molested" -- she was raped. She was 5 years old and she was raped. There may not be comfort in the truth, but there is release, at least, from the untruth.

The big question is how this can happen -- how so many priests can abuse and how it is so effectively enabled -- and Deliver Us From Evil thoroughly excavates the possibilities, with some interviewees comparing the Catholic Church to the Mafia. Berg's portrait of a sociopath is as chilling as any in recent memory, perhaps never moreso than in O'Grady's descriptions of the sexual abuse he himself suffered at the hands of some fellow "good Catholics": his older brother, and later, his local parish priest.

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