On two occasions in Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, the camera lingers on a large crucifix. Christ’s face is turned up and away, his gaunt frame a reminder of his profound suffering and sacrifice. The documentary serves a similar function, but the suffering it recollects is that of countless children who were sexually violated by members of the Catholic clergy. Using first-person interviews with one offender and his victims, it exposes the devastating consequences of the Church’s sex abuse crisis and subsequent cover-up.
The film’s primary focus is Oliver O’Grady, a former Catholic priest who molested and raped children (at least one was only nine months old) in Northern California parishes from the 1970s to the 1990s. Convicted in 1993 for committing “lewd and lascivious” acts against boys, he was incarcerated for seven years, then deported to his native Ireland. In Dublin, he granted Berg, a television news producer, 10 days’ worth of startlingly candid interviews. (According to a recent report in the Irish Independent, O’Grady has since fled Ireland and is “on his way to Canada.”)
Although O’Grady says he confessed his crimes to bishops over the years, he calls his interviews in this film the “most important confession of my life.” From his bishops, he sought “forgiveness and absolution,” but his disclosures here are unlikely to elicit either from the audience. We learn that O’Grady committed abuse at schools, homes, and churches, and that he targeted entire families, cozying up to parents (even seducing one mother interviewed here) to gain access to their children. A self-proclaimed “people person,” O’Grady is alternately forthcoming and dissembling. While he admits that he finds the sight of children in swimsuits and underwear sexually arousing, he couches his rapes in euphemistic terms, like “cuddling” and “being overly affectionate.”
Berg (who is never seen or heard in the film) interviews O’Grady inside empty churches and classrooms, as well as near populated playgrounds. As he watches children on swings and slides, he describes his pedophiliac impulses in unsettling detail. These settings, though clearly loaded, pack a visceral wallop: the viewer first feels revulsion listening to O’Grady recount his past molestation of boys and girls, and then a combination of dread, outrage, and helplessness seeing him in such close proximity to children now.
O’Grady claims he wants to make amends for his crimes, but his letters of apology to his victims sound self-serving and wrongheaded. Addressing the camera, he encourages them to come to Ireland. “I invite people to talk with me, so you can get on with your lives, and I can get on with mine.” With a smarmy wink, he finishes, “I hope to see you all real soon.” Given the nature of his crimes, O’Grady’s playful tone and expression here are bone-chilling.
As a kind of counterpoint, the documentary offers poignant interviews with the Jyono family, whose daughter Ann was raped by O’Grady from the age of five onward, and Nancy Sloan, another of his victims. Violated by this trusted clergy member, their pain reverberates on almost every level of experience, or, as Bob Jyono, Ann’s father, cries, “The whole world collapsed.” According to Mary Gail Frawley O’Dea, a psychologist specializing in clergy abuse, sex crimes committed by priests amount to a type of “spiritual abuse.”
The film illustrates how the offense was exacerbated by the Church’s response. Videotaped depositions (for instance, by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, then Archbishop of the Los Angeles diocese and O’Grady’s superior) reveal that Church officials were aware of his offenses as early as the mid-’70s. Instead of removing him from service, they bounced him from parish to parish, where he was free to prey on new victims (as no one in the new locations was informed of his past). According to the film, this was a function of the officials’ ambitions: the scandal would have ruined their own careers.
With the aid of theologians, victims’ attorneys, and canon historians, Deliver Us From Evil argues that celibacy, sexism, and homophobia all help to structure abuse and denial. In a deposition, O’Grady describes his own childhood abuse by a parish priest and a family member, indicating his place in a long cycle of clerical abuse. (The problem is so pervasive, the Catholic Church has already paid $1 billion in legal settlements to abuse victims.) Of his own crimes, O’Grady says, “I should have been removed and attended to. I would have liked all the bishops to have done that.” He raises a crucial point about the compulsive nature of pedophilia, evidenced by its high rate of recidivism. Beset by urges, O’Grady didn’t have the capacity (or will) to behave rationally, but his supervisors presumably did. The movie makes clear their responsibility and their lack of responsible action.
The film submits that such abuses, by sexual predators and those who cover up, have gone on in different forms for centuries and all over the world, not just of late in the United States. But the recent public scandal has thrown many Catholics (even conflicted ones, like me) into crisis and despair, whether they were directly affected by the abuse or not. Where do you go when your clergy have behaved so abominably? Do you leave the Church that you love? If you decide to stay, are you in some way complicit in the crimes of your leaders? The answer is heartbreaking for Bob Jyono. He has refused to step foot in a church again, and on screen, he says he no longer believes in God, a declaration that makes Ann, still a practicing Catholic, break down in tears.
Berg’s case against the Church is so well crafted and strongly argued that it’s difficult to leave the film without feeling as bereft and demoralized as Mr. Jyono. But Deliver Us From Evil does present one voice of hope and reform, in the person of Tom Doyle, a victims’ advocate and canon law expert who is fighting for change. Before an audience, he says, “A good Catholic is someone who models himself after Christ, who was a revolutionary. You’ll notice that the only time Christ got angry was when he was in a church.” His audience erupts in cheers. By including a crusader as sympathetic, learned, and passionate as Doyle, Berg suggests that the battle – though uphill — is not entirely lost.
Last summer, I attended mass at my neighborhood church, and during the general intercessions, the pastor said a prayer for the “brokenhearted,” asking God and the congregants to reach out to them in their time of suffering. Deliver Us From Evil makes it clear that the sex abuse and cover-ups in the Church have left behind innumerable broken hearts and broken lives. It demonstrates that denial by officials must end and reform instituted. Without that, the Church doesn’t have a prayer for making things right.