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Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Bishops' critic: No clergy influence on film ratings

New York

A muckraking new documentary hints that Catholic and Protestant clergy play a mysterious role in assigning the familiar G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings for American films, but the Catholic delegate says he’s got absolutely nothing to do with the outcome.

Harry Forbes said that he or a colleague from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, David DiCerto, sits only on the appeals panel at the Motion Picture Association of America and has no voice in its decisions.

“We observe, we don’t contribute to the conversation,” said Forbes, head of the bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting. “We’re not asked for an opinion. That might influence the vote, and we don’t have a vote.”

The point, Forbes said, is to monitor the process and to report back to the bishops about how it’s working.

“This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” an unconventional documentary often compared to the films of Michael Moore, offers a polemic against the ratings system of the Motion Picture Association. Filmmaker Kirby Dick charges that the ratings are arbitrary, that they treat sex as more offensive than violence, that they’re biased in favor of major studio productions at the expense of independent films, and that they are doled out by a shadowy band of anonymous raters.

The ratings, primarily intended to help parents guide the viewing choices of their children, are voluntary, though it is often difficult to distribute an unrated film. There are two Motion Picture Association ratings bodies, a group of full-time raters and an appeals panel.

As part of his exposé, Dick discovers that one Protestant and one Catholic representative sit on the appeals panel. He makes reference to the long history of antagonism between Hollywood and the churches, including various attempts over the years at censorship. Forbes’ name is briefly displayed on screen.

For the record, Forbes is not “clergy.” He’s a former New York drama critic and executive for the Public Broadcasting Service, who came to work for the U.S. bishops as their in-house film critic in 2004.

Forbes said he is not a censor.

While the appeals panel meets eight to 10 times a year, Forbes said, someone from the bishops’ conference attends no more than five, given the expense and time involved.

Forbes said, he sits silently during the screenings and remains silent during the discussion that follows. If he speaks, it’s chit-chat during coffee breaks having nothing to do with the film under consideration.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, outgoing spokesperson for the American bishops, said the bishops’ participation goes back to the late 1960s, when the movie industry saw a ratings system as a way to fend off calls for external censorship, and wanted religious groups to be involved to show concern for their sentiments.

“Jack Valenti [longtime head of the film association] consulted with a variety of groups, including the Office of Film and Broadcasting, and other religious representatives,” Maniscalco said.

The bishops have their own ratings system: A-I for general viewing, A-II for adults and adolescents, A-III for adults, L for a limited adult audience, and O for “morally offensive.” Recently, for example, the Samuel Jackson action film “Snakes on a Plane” drew an “O” rating for “frequent rough, crude and profane language, a premarital sexual episode with upper female nudity and drug use, innuendo, intense peril, an off-camera murder and much midair death and devastation.”

In his review of “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Forbes called it “lively … if disjointed and ultimately unconvincing,” claiming that most of the movies Dick cites as victims of arbitrary judgment actually deserved their NC-17 ratings.

Forbes said his role with the film association shouldn’t set off free speech alarms. If anything, he said, it speaks to the high regard the Catholic church has for cinema.

“In general, Catholic film criticism produces some of the most literate, intelligent pieces about film out there,” Forbes said, stressing he was not just talking about his office, but the wider range of Catholic media. “It’s very nuanced. People are usually surprised.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

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