Originally created 05/20/05

TV movie dramatizes tragedy of abusive priests

NEW YORK - "Our Fathers" confronts a subject that seems all too ripe for exploitation: sexually abusive priests in the Catholic Church.

But while dramatizing the tragedy, this Showtime film avoids the pitfalls of melodrama. It focuses not on the squalid crimes, but on their disastrous effect - as well as on the courage of the victims who spoke up. "Our Fathers" premieres at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Reflectively, somberly, the story unfolds: In early 2002, the Boston Globe exposed Father John J. Geoghan as well as Cardinal Bernard Law, who not only failed to stop years of sexual abuse by Geoghan and other Boston clergy, but tried to hide it.

Contacted initially by just a handful of victims (abused boys now grown to troubled, shame-filled adulthood), attorney Mitchell Garabedian took on the archdiocese. The church's response, even in the face of damning evidence of abuse that spanned decades, was disavowal and further cover-up.

"John Geoghan's transgressions were not the fault of a caring church," Law declares in a sermon in the film, "but the aberrant act of one depraved man."

Even so, in December 2002, Law resigned under pressure as archbishop of Boston and was forced to give depositions that helped pave the way to a settlement between the archdiocese and Garabedian's clients: $10 million awarded to more than 86 plaintiffs. (In all, the archdiocese of Boston has paid out nearly $100 million in settlements to some 600 victims.)

But how much corrective action has the church really taken? Disapproving parishioners asked this question last month as Law (who after leaving Boston in disgrace was granted a ceremonial but highly visible appointment in Rome) led a Mass for thousands mourning Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Basilica.

"Our Fathers" points to no clear-cut victory. The film's conclusion seems to mark no more than a beginning for reform. Such a saga doesn't make for a bracing piece of entertainment.

"I don't know that this is entertainment," says journalist David France, whose book served as the basis for the film. "I think it's history that we're trying to reflect. This certainly is not a documentary, but in an important way I think it covers what the emotional journey has been like for those who took it. I think that's its power.

"And until we see there's some sort of real conversion of thinking in the Catholic Church about this subject, which we haven't seen yet, I think the issue needs to be hammered away at."

Directed by Dan Curtis ("The Winds of War," "War and Remembrance"), the film stars Ted Danson as Garabedian and Christopher Plummer as Law. Brian Dennehy is outspoken Father Dominic Spagnolia, who boldly condemns the abuse and systematic cover-up from his pulpit ("This is not a Cardinal! This is a Nixon!"), but is eventually driven from the church.

The screenplay by Thomas Michael Donnelly is based on "Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal," the book France wrote after reporting on the scandal for Newsweek.

France says at first he saw the story as one of crime and malfeasance.

"But then I found deeper and more fundamental themes, like hope and faith" on the part of the victims and other outraged Catholics. Their spiritual response, he says, was personal, a process necessarily apart from the church. "They pulled together this movement that penetrated the cardinals' inner circle and took control of history."

This, says France, was only after victims who tried to alert the church were told "that it's YOUR obligation to keep it quiet - to save the church. That the only thing standing between the church and scandal is YOU, not the ongoing presence of the priest. They had brought civil litigation because nobody was paying attention to them - and then they were being called enemies of the Catholic family.

"But the litigation they pursued was what brought public attention to the policy. It was the thing that saved the Catholic Church from this policy, and may have saved generations of kids from the same sort of abuse."

What they did is the wrenching but important story of "Our Fathers." And, as France proposes, "It was Christian work - isn't it?"

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