This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  December 10, 2004

Clerical sex abuse scandal gets wide play


“Ripped from the headlines” is the catchy phrase often used to promote TV movies based on sensational events. This fall it could well describe theatrical productions on both the East and West Coasts. Just as last fall brought a number of plays dealing with Sept. 11 themes, this year the subject is sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, capturing the stage in three Off-Broadway productions and at least two in Los Angeles.

I’ve only seen the New York shows, the most compelling of which is “Sin (A Cardinal Deposed),” a documentary play by Michael Murphy drawn from the testimony of Cardinal Bernard Law, which dramatically portrays the arrogance and indifference with which Cardinal Law handled accusations of sexual abuse of children by priests under his authority over many years. The script was developed using portions of Cardinal Law’s deposition in two civil cases and information from more than 15,000 pages of internal church documents going back four decades. It combines the two civil suits and distills dozens of attorneys into one for each side, giving them fictional names.

Veteran Broadway actor John Cullum portrays Cardinal Law as alternately imperial, detached and defensive. The play takes place in a deposition room in Suffolk Superior Court as Cardinal Law is questioned by Orson Krieger (Thomas Jay Ryan), a lawyer for Patrick McSorley and 86 other plaintiffs who have charged Law with failing to protect them from sexual abuse by priests of the Boston archdiocese.

Statements from victims’ families and subordinate clergy are woven throughout as the spotlight shifts to actors presenting their letters of concern, especially about Fr. John Geoghan and Fr. Paul Shanley. In a letter to Fr. Geoghan five weeks after he was removed from one parish, Cardinal Law writes to say he will be appointed parochial vicar of another, adding, “I am confident you will render fine priestly service to the people of God in St. Julia Parish.”

After Fr. Geoghan is again accused of sexual abuse, he writes to Cardinal Law requesting retirement status. Cardinal Law responds, granting his request. “Yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness. On behalf of those you have served well, and in my own name, I would like to thank you.” Cardinal Law explains that the letter was his way of being “pastorally present” to a priest who did minister well to many people and “at the same time, terribly abused children,” describing Fr. Geoghan’s ministry as “a mixture of light and darkness.”

Cardinal Law responds similarly to charges against Fr. Shanley, moving him from job to job in which he would continue to have contact with children. And when abuse charges finally caught up with Fr. Shanley, Cardinal Law writes another of his pastoral letters, praising him for his “impressive record” over 30 years, adding “all of us are truly grateful for your priestly care and ministry to all whom you have served during those years.”

When asked if he ever throughout the years reached out to comfort the victims, Cardinal Law responds that he left that to his delegates.

Toward the conclusion of his deposition, Mr. Krieger mentions the names of a half-dozen priests and asks Cardinal Law if he knew of the sexual abuse allegations against them. The cardinal responds affirmatively. Mr. Krieger asks if he can identify even one priest who was removed from parish ministry after being accused of sexual molestation. “I don’t believe that there are any,” Cardinal Law replies.

After the cardinal’s testimony we are informed that in May 2004 Pope John Paul II appointed Cardinal Law archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. I guess the pontiff was just trying to be “pastorally present.”

The play concludes with Mr. McSorley (Pablo T. Schreiber) telling the heartbreaking story of how his abuse began. The audience applauded solemnly and left quietly. “Sin,” which has been produced in Boston and Chicago, is an effective and powerful evening of theater that I hope will see many more productions around the country.

The other two New York plays are fictional. In “Doubt,” playwright John Patrick Shanley creates just that. Set in 1964 in a Catholic school in the Bronx, the play illustrates the difficulty of pursuing truth without facts. Charity Sr. Aloysius (Cherry Jones) is certain assistant pastor Fr. Flynn (Brián F. O’Byrne) has molested the parish school’s only black child, a lonely boy the priest invites into the rectory. She seeks the assistance of one of her young teachers, Sr. James (Heather Goldenhersh). “We can’t wait to be wrong,” she warns. “If you close your eyes you will be party to all that comes after.”

Like “Sin,” “Doubt” is a fast-paced, 90-minute production with no intermission, but here the wrongdoing is not so clear. Sr. Aloysius seems to have a strong case against Fr. Flynn. But when confronted by the two sisters, he offers a plausible enough defense. Sr. Aloysius doesn’t waver, though, going to the extreme to get Fr. Flynn out. She wins on one level -- Fr. Flynn is made pastor of another parish -- only to find that her certainty is not so easy to maintain.

The play, at New York City Center through Jan. 9, springs from Mr. Shanley’s life in several ways. He says a member of his family was molested by Fr. Geoghan. When the child’s parents told their accusations to New York Cardinal John O’Connor, they were assured the matter would be taken care of, only to find out later the priest had been promoted. Mr. Shanley himself attended parochial school in the Bronx, St. Anthony’s Grammar School, where he was taught by the Sisters of Charity of New York, whom he liked. He has said his parochial school experience with the sisters influenced the way he viewed the recent church scandals, saying he believes nuns probably noticed distressing behavior in children they suspected were being abused by priests, but their chain of command at that time allowed them only to report their suspicions to their pastors, who often covered up for the priests, rather than to the police. He imagines this led to frustration and moral dilemmas for those nuns, and “Doubt” does a good job of portraying the difficult position the sisters were in.

The assistant director consulted Charity Sr. M. Irene Fugazy for historical research about the time period and region, visiting the order’s archives and coming away with clippings, photos, a rosary, a collar and cap to use as costume models and advice on the exact style of the long black skirt of their habit. Ms. Goldenhersh also sought authenticity, meeting with Charity Sr. Margaret O’Brien to learn about the life of a teaching sister in 1964. The production’s publicist included biographical information on the order’s founder, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton -- mentioned in the play -- in the show’s press packet, complete with Web sites for more information.

“Doubt” is intriguing and caused a great deal of discussion from the departing audience because it develops the gray world of uncertainty. Failing to do this was the downfall of the third New York play, “The Lepers of Baile Baiste,” which steadfastly held to the view of bad church/poor victims. The play, the first of a trilogy, is about four former classmates, now in their late 20s, who spend their time drinking, gossiping and cursing in the pub of their small town in Ireland. All, we are led to believe, were sexually abused by a Christian Brother. A fifth classmate who was the most frequent victim is talked about but never appears. He hangs himself during the course of the play.

All the young men are so scarred by their past that they are incapable of doing much of anything other than drink and talk. This quickly gets tedious. Developmentally they haven’t matured beyond their boyhood, which I’m sure psychologically is a possible consequence of such abuse, but it makes it hard to have sympathy for them. They are more or less interchangeable and so one-dimensionally portrayed that the trauma of what happened to them is lost. All apparently, with the possible exception of one, are impotent and none seems to have a job; one, who says he’s “on the dole,” rations his public assistance so he can get drunk four nights a week. Another steals statues from the local church. Jesus, Mary and a large angel end up in the bar where the angel gets coats piled on it to hide it from the priest who comes in to chisel a free bottle for one of his charities. (He preaches against drinking in his sermons.)

Although the play is set in the present, the backwardness of the men makes them seem more like characters in an Ireland of long ago. As one says when he enters the pub, “Definitely a good day for the high stool. Miserable weather. Miserable day. It’d make ya drink.” Dialogue like that, portraying the any-excuse-for-a-drink Irish, is stereotypical and has been overdone for too long. This drunkenness and caricature are especially obnoxious in the case of Seaneen (Charles Stransky), the middle-aged drunk who finally -- mercifully -- passes out on the floor.

The play, which was produced at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, where it received a national playwriting award, is the first by Ronan Noone, who immigrated to America from Ireland 10 years ago. It has yet to be produced in Ireland.

I didn’t see the just-closed Los Angeles works dealing with this subject. “Damages” is by R.S. Call, a former priest now active in the peace movement. The play, presented at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood, is the story of a middle-aged man tormented by his past sexual abuse by a priest while he was an altar boy. He wants the district attorney’s office to investigate and hold the priest accountable, but his own guilt hinders him, and some in the church hierarchy try to obstruct the efforts. The news release states that as he becomes more desperate to see justice done, “he contemplates increasingly drastic measures when obstacles appear in his path.”

Another recent West Coast production was “The Prince of L.A.,” which the Andak Stage Company revived this fall after first presenting it in the spring. Its author, Dakin Matthews, holds a degree in Catholic theology and studied for three years at the Vatican and Rome’s Gregorian University. He says many of his schoolmates hold high positions in the church.

“The play is not so much about pedophilia, which is a minor but powerful theme in the piece, as it is about the way the institutional clerical psyche is formed to deal with both sexuality and scandal,” Mr. Matthews explained in a news release. “I’ve seen plays and movies about priests and bishops before, and read novels and stories about them, and what has always struck me is that very few writers actually capture the complexity of the clerical mindset. And with the recent scandals, almost all the stories are told, as perhaps they should be, from the other side, from the victims’ side. I just wanted to ‘open a window,’ as John XXIII might have said, on the clerical and especially the hierarchical psyche and show the demons and angels that wrestle there.”

I wish I had seen this show, especially after seeing “Sin,” because I’d like to understand “the hierarchical psyche” that could produce such indifference to the suffering of children. After her nephews and grandnephews have been abused and the family told to keep silent “to protect the boys,” an aunt writes to Cardinal Law in “Sin,” “My heart is broken over the whole situation and it is a burden to my conscience that the parish is left in the dark while I know the danger its children are in.” Presenting this abuse dramatically is an effective way to keep the subject in the spotlight, literally, and give more people an awareness of its human toll. I don’t know how many more plays with this topic will be produced before another issue takes over, but it’s important that these are being done because the arts can reach people in a way newspapers cannot.

Retta Blaney’s latest book is Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors (Sheed & Ward).

Related Web sites
“Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)”

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: