Forgive Us Our Trespasses…

Sex scandals have rocked the Christian church throughout the past decade. Whether child abuse in the Catholic church or gay prostitutes in the evangelical Protestant community, parishioners and congregants have, directly and indirectly, fallen victim to their leaders’ sexual indiscretions. The public image of these religious leaders has been irreparably tarnished and so has the secular perception of these religious communities. Many viewers’ perception of Ted Haggard in Jesus Camp changed drastically after his confession of involvement with a male prostitute. Moral crusaders like Governor Eliot Spitzer or Senator Larry Craig, while not religious leaders, certainly draw from Judeo-Christian values for their policies. One of the more significant documentaries to emerge in recent years, Deliver Us From Evil, focuses on one aspect of these sex scandals, the rape and molestation of countless women and children by Catholic priests. Still retaining a 100% approval rating on two years after its release, this is truly one of the most significant documentaries of the decade.

Written and directed by Amy Berg, Deliver Us From Evil focuses on Father Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest who molested and raped women, boys, and girls during the 70s and 80s in northern California. Berg tells O’Grady’s story through interviews with O’Grady himself, his victims and their families, and the priests, lawyers, and psychologists who deal(t) with his case. Berg also relies on loads of footage from Father O’Grady’s and his superiors’ depositions. Berg reveals a case of rampant evil and sin not only in Father O’Grady’s actions, but in the lies, deceit, and cover up of his superiors.

Berg’s documentary is about as straightforward as they come. Her interviews with Father O’Grady are chillingly and painfully honest as he reveals just what he did to children as young as nine months old. Father O’Grady effects an unimaginable naivete that suggests the dissociative disorder that lawyers accuse him of having. Berg does little editorializing or demonizing here as O’Grady’s evil speaks for itself, revealing how it can creep in our homes and faith communities from the most unlikely of sources.

If O’Grady’s actions are unspeakable, then his superiors’ responses are unimaginable. Throughout their depositions, the bishops claim ignorance of O’Grady’s offenses despite the fact that the lawyers refer to reports that had been filed from the victims’ families years before. In fact, Cardinal Mahony moved O’Grady from one parish to another, never more than 52 miles from one another, rather than turning him over to the authorities, moving him to a monastery, or dismissing him altogether. Moreover, one of the bishops told one of O’Grady’s female victims that she should basically get over it because she was a girl and it was just O’Grady’s curiosity. If she had been a boy, things would have been much different. But O’Grady was molesting young boys as well, and, rather than handling the situation properly, his superiors actually gave him a promotion. Despite his apparent disorders, even Father O’Grady looks back and sees how wrong all this was: “It should have never have happened. I should have been removed and attended to and my victims should have been attended to.”

O’Grady would eventually serve prison time and then be deported back to Ireland where he now walks free among a community ignorant of his past offenses. None of his superiors have been charged for conspiracy or cover up, though lawyers like Father Tom Doyle continue to work for the trials and convictions. In fact, in a concluding title, we learn that President Bush granted the Pope immunity from ever being prosecuted for aiding in the cover up of these events. In his pursuit of power and prestige, and in their attempt to avoid public scandal at all cost, Cardinal Mahony and other Catholic leaders betrayed the very people that they were chosen to protect and serve. By victimizing young children, they betrayed the example of Christ who saw children as the heart of the kingdom of God. By trying to avoid public scandal, they only made the situation worse for themselves and their victims.

The heart of Deliver Us From Evil is the inclusion of the testimonies and stories of several of Father O’Grady’s victims, specifically two women and a man. Their stories reflect their inability to ever fully recover from their traumatic experiences. Their pain and sorrow evidence the, perhaps, impossibility of forgiveness. Their images of not only priests, but of God, have been forever broken. One of the victims responds, “He [Father O’Grady] was the closes thing to God I ever knew.” In the Lord’s Prayer, from which the film’s title comes, we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Theologians like Marjorie Suchocki write thoughtfully and elegantly about the necessity for forgiveness. Yet when she includes examples of cases where forgiveness is needed, they never approach the severity of events like Father O’Grady’s child molestation. How are these women and men to forgive him when he has not only traumatized them, but their parents as well? Is prison time and deportation all that is required for him to make amends?

Deliver Us From Evil explicitly critiques the structure of the Catholic church and its emphasis on celibacy. There can be no doubt that Father O’Grady’s actions are a searing example of personal evil that must be exposed and punished. Yet we must also consider, not in any way to excuse, that this is an extreme perversion of a natural tendency further complicated by the unnatural repression of this tendency within the Catholic priesthood.

The points for discussion that I have raised here only scratch the surface of this important film. Deliver Us From Evil represents one of a group of documentaries that everyone should watch, especially would-be ministers. It is so unfortunate that a branch of the Christian church so committed to social justice throughout history should fall victim to and perpetrate such grave injustices that have resulted in countless victims in this country and around the world. Moreover, we can think of countless ways in which the over $1 billion the church has spent dealing with this scandal could have been used to further social justice ministries.

A final strength of Berg’s film is her inclusion of the likes of Father Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest and lawyer fighting against the scandal on behalf of the victims. Perhaps his work, and others like him, can help heal the brokenness that his colleagues have wrought.