On Jan. 6, 2002, The Boston Globe published a front-page story about child abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. The article had the chilling opening line, “Since the mid-1990’s, more than 130 people have come forward with horrific childhood tales about how former priest John J. Geoghan allegedly fondled or raped them during a three-decade spree through a half-dozen Greater Boston parishes.” For decades Geoghan had been abusing children; more shocking, the archdiocese knew it.
Each day new information would come out: further evidence and stories, more victims, then more accused abusers and then still more victims and growing public outrage over the role the archdiocese had played. For many who lived in Boston, it felt as though an enormous bomb had dropped, our own, self-inflicted Sept. 11.
Still the reports continued. And what started as one terrible blast became a relentless shelling that beat readers down day after day. Some began to complain that The Boston Globe and other news agencies were targeting the Catholic Church with their nonstop coverage. The truth of the matter was, so much had been hidden away for so long, there was simply no way of “telling the story” and getting it over with.
Three years later, Showtime has attempted to recount the early events of the sexual abuse crisis in a film, Our Fathers (premiering May 21 at 8 p.m.). Based on the best-selling book of the same title, “Our Fathers” wants to present the stories of victims and Mitchell Garabedian, the first lawyer involved in the case; of Cardinal Bernard Law and his advisors; of the Rev. Dominic Spagnolia, a priest of the archdiocese who speaks out against Law and is later accused of child abuse himself; and, to a lesser extent, the responses of The Globe, Catholic laypeople, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Pope John Paul II.
The result, sadly, is a largely unfocused and in some ways puzzling work that mistakes exposition for drama. The film begins well enough. The lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Ted Danson) represents five men who accuse John Geoghan of having abused them as children. Danson nicely avoids both mawkish sentimentality and made-for-TV self-righteousness. Plain-spoken and unassuming, his Garabedian provides the film initially with a clear center and direction. As he meets more and more men who have been abused, he becomes a stand-in for the audience, providing respectful and privileged access.
The presentations of those who have been abused are by far the strongest element of the film. The acting is very fine and the storytelling consistently understated. These are heartbroken men, and their stories are simply devastating. Particularly striking are Chris Bauer as the survivor Olan Horne and Ellen Burstyn as Mary Ryan, mother of seven boys who were all abused by John Geoghan; “Our Fathers” is worth watching just to hear these stories.
Though the victims return throughout, the movie’s focus shifts from Garabedian to Cardinal Bernard Law. The change would seem to make sense; Law’s actions lie at the heart of the sexual abuse crisis in Boston, and his story is Shakespearean in dimension. The casting of the dramatic heavyweight Christopher Plummer as Law likewise indicates the sort of gravitas the filmmakers intended.
Yet Law is portrayed as a seemingly witless innocent, a victim, whose main crimes are compassion and befuddlement. In the film he most often sits cow-eyed and agape, exuding contrition and shock while others tell him what to do. At one point his spokeswoman Donna Morrissey feeds him lines for his next homily. The story may be true, but the overall presentation is ridiculous. As leader of the Archdiocese of Boston for nearly 20 years, Law was anything but naïve or weak-willed, and the film does the whole situation a grave disservice by presenting him as such.
More could be said of this, or of the dozen other poor choices the film makes, like relegating the great Brian Dennehy to the minor role of Father Dominic Spagnolia, whose story simply does not fit in this film. Or presenting the Voice of the Faithful (quite inaccurately) as a radical Catholic sect spitting vitriol and urging revolution in church gymnasiums. Or the terribly written and acted archdiocesan lawyer, Will Rogers Jr. (Will Lyman), whose performance is so hollow that it draws attention to itself and makes the archdiocesan proceedings seem strangely goofy. Or the cameo of the popes (past and present); it’s played for drama, but again--goofy.
In the end, it feels as though “Our Fathers” is so focused on telling us the entire story that it forgets the essentials of storytelling: drama, pathos, character. There are some powerful moments, yet the film lacks abiding feeling. It is hard to grasp the filmmakers’ vision of the whole.
Perhaps that is understandable. The sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church continues to unfold. Parishes and schools are closing; dioceses are declaring bankruptcy. Much more is still left unresolved. New procedures have been put in place to protect children in church settings. Yet the crisis of sexual abuse in the church did not happen primarily because children, parents or parishioners did not report cases--they did--but because church leaders did not adequately act on those reports. This aspect of the crisis has yet to be dealt with.
Many have said the church must move on. Yet the story remains unfinished.