About the less-than-perfect Catholic Church, a character in Don DeLillo’s novel Americana once explained: “It’s like the lying and cheating General Motors does. You still need cars.” And it’s not as if American Catholics didn’t know that there was some lying and cheating going on before 2002, when, with considerable help from a local lawyer, the Boston Globe blew the whistle on Father John J. Geoghan and Cardinal Bernard Law. The surprise is that anybody was surprised. The astonishment is that the church was finally held accountable.
And while Our Fathers is a worthy adaptation of David France’s scrupulous book on the pedophilia scandal, it is far from the first television production to address the issues. Not even counting the episode of Law & Order in which Chris Noth’s Mike Logan had to face up to his altar-boy past, I can recall as far back as fifteen years ago both The Boys of St. Vincent, a nightmare mini-series based loosely on a sexual-abuse case in a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland in the seventies, and Judgment, a TV movie in which David Strathairn played a Louisiana priest who molested young parishioners and Jack Warden played the attorney who actually enjoyed taking on Holy Rome. None of this should have been news.
But it is news in Boston when attorney Mitchell Garabedian (a frantic Ted Danson) goes after not only a priest (Steven Shaw’s Father Geoghan) who abused more than one young boy but also the archdiocese that knew of the abuse yet transferred him anyway to another parish, where he repeated his offenses. When the Globe and its “Spotlight” investigative team get into the act, suddenly the cozy system in which the church has been coddled by pols, cops, and courts falls apart. Cardinal Law—an amazing Christopher Plummer, who plays the Man in Red as if he were a princely cretin—can no longer hide behind deal-making lawyers (Will Lyman) and cover-up bishops (Kenneth Welsh). Priests with a better idea of stewardship (Brian Dennehy), mothers who refuse to forgive and forget (Ellen Burstyn), and victims grown up but still grieving (Chris Bauer, Daniel Baldwin, James Oliver) all line up against him. Only the pope (Jan Rubes) is on his slithery side.
We will sit in on editorial meetings in which a newspaper decides just how brave it can afford to be. We will eavesdrop on the archdiocese as it plots to distract media attention by gay-bashing Dennehy’s Father Spagnolia. We will watch as Father Geoghan, sentenced to prison for ten years, is strangled in his cell. Still, the most powerful moments in Our Fathers belong to the survivors, many of whom have insisted that their real names be used here. Their testimony may be more explicit than any you’ve ever heard on television, but we are, after all, talking about rape. It is precisely such witness that speaks to the ultimate shame, to an official abuse of power more horrific than any failure of accountability. These were children.
Still, despite the show’s strengths, can’t help but compare it to The Boys of St. Vincent, which is scarier because more artful. Instead of hopping about, like Our Fathers, from office to cloister to bar to bedroom, Boys moved in druggy dream-speed, distilling its raw materials to a dark and claustrophobic residue—coercion dressed up as worship. The first two hours were medieval: Obedience had nothing to do with God; power was sickly erotic; despair was the only gravity. The two concluding hours jumped forward to 1990, when the case of damaged boys finally came to Canadian trial. So the modern imagination tried to come to grips with an age-old evil in the distinctively modern manner—with cameras and courtrooms, royal commissions and licensed psychiatrists, even a call-in radio talk show. But the mind fell down like a torn black kite.
Both the little boys in Canada and the holy fathers in Boston make me wonder how much we really need DeLillo’s cars.