by Jay Chin
Who Takes Away the Sins: Witnesses to Clergy Abuse, a 52 minute-long documentary about the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis in the United States produced by Professors John and Susan Michalczyk, was screened this past weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The interviewees include survivors, attorneys and advocates from the Boston area. The film intertwines the development of the crisis as the cases came to light and the experiences of the survivors as they were abused by clerics, most for a lengthy duration.
Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe explains how what he thought was scandal involving well over a dozen priests turned out to involve over two hundred priests in the Boston Archdiocese alone. Cardinal Bernard Law is a featured figure because of his position as archbishop when the scandal broke; he is portrayed as an idle figure, unwilling to make significant contributions to aid the victims who were seeking justice. Attorney Mitchell Garabedian characterized the Church as the richest institution in the world and one that has been doing these kinds of heinous acts for centuries.
Common to all the testimonies of the survivors was how the priests made themselves familiar figures before beginning to abuse the children. Another recurring tactic was to use the threat of violence and divine punishment in order to keep the children from confessing to the abuse.
The documentary reports that there are 16,324 known victims and that 66% of the 6,115 accused priests have been allowed to continue exercising their clerical functions. United in the struggle demanding action from the Catholic hierarchy are the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, led by Paul Kellen, who often stand in front of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross in protest, and websites such as bishopaccountability.org, run by Anne Barrett-Doyle, both interviewees.
Following the October 4 screening at the MFA, eight panelists entered into a discussion with the audience, answering questions and elaborating on topics covered in the film.
The panelists were Anne Barrett-Doyle; Hellen McGonigle, Esq., featured survivor in the documentary and advocate; Walter Robinson; Mitchell Garabedian; Robert Hoatson, suvivor, Director of Road to Recovery and former Catholic priest; Alexa McPherson, featured survivor in the documentary; Paul Kellen; and Rev. Bruce Teague, Catholic priest and advocate.
The first question raised concerned why such a mishandling existed in the first place. Ms. McGonigle explained that parents of many victims, as was her mother, were forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement on the threat of excommunication and Mr. Garabedian added that the Church has canon law established to keep all such matters secret, even sending the relevant documentation to the Vatican. Mr. Hoatson added that priests think of themselves as ontologically different and hence unlike the laity, which adds to a sense of indifference.
The most surprising comment from the audience came from Ms. McGonigle’s former neighbor and survivor of abuse by the same priest, who asked where he could take the twenty-two affidavits he has against John Paul II, affidavits he said would have put him behind bars, affidavits because of which he and his wife and child have been persecuted. No clear answer was given.
Ms. Barrett-Doyle maintained the topic of the papacy when they were asked about their faiths by commending Pope Francis for reaching out to marginalized groups, a gesture that appears to be in the same spirit as her philosophy that “the victims are the Church”. However, she also disclosed that that Pope Francis, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, did not do much of a better job than an the average bishop when it came to bringing abusers to justice and, in fact, sought the acquittal of four accused priests.
None of the survivors expressed any belief in the Catholic Church, although Mr. Hoatson said that his faith is “weak”, not “dead,” as Ms. McPherson also said. Mr. Garabedian, although not Catholic, mentioned his surprise when he learned that Catholicism is taught punitively, that one either does something as the Church teaches or he is going to Hell.
The final question concerned what is yet to be done. Ms. Barrett-Doyle pointed out that one of the largest obstacles they now face is the advancement of the H. 1455 Bill, which would alter the statute of limitations against an abused minor to allow charges to be pressed by the victim until the age of 55, which is currently working its way through the state legislature. She and Fr. Teague urged the audience to call the Speaker of the House, Hon. Robert DeLeo (617-722-2500), and urge him to pass the bill.