Recently, a Jesuit friend (yup, imagine that...) invited me to a screening of Jason Berry’s film Vows of Silence scheduled for screening at Fairfield University in a few weeks. I told him that I had seen it once already, on DVD. If the screening is part of a forum on the broader issues of the clergy abuse scandal and reform in the Church, I am definitely interested. If it’s solely centered on this specific bit of filmmaking... not so much. The Exorcist’s opinion, for whatever it’s worth, includes some of the following thoughts.
The DVD summarizes the basic content covered in more detail in Berry’s book by the same name. There are small historical imprecisions that neither help nor hurt the central thesis of the author. A generous portion of the footage is taken from the LC promotional videos of the ‘90s. There is no novelty, no surprise in the documentary-like program for anyone familiar with the controversy that ensued between Fr. Maciel and his ex-LC accusers some years ago after reporting by the Hartford Courant and lasted up to the Vatican’s statement on the case and the Founder’s death.
The program’s insistence that Fr. Maciel was somehow inspired by the likes of Adolph Hitler, Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet to found the LC is misguided at best. The images of goose-stepping foot soldiers and flat-handed, straight-armed salutes mixed with uniformed LCs from the 50s and 60s probably made for some excitement in the editing room, but have little to do with the reality of the LC. It is this type of overkill that raises credibility issues in the minds of even the more critically inclined among us.
But the fundamental and lasting complaint to be lodged with the fairness police about this film is also the oldest and the least politically correct.
Why should I believe Fr. Maciel’s accusers in the first place?
Why give instant and unquestioned credibility to persons whose stories might just merit a more critical look? Case in point, there’s a new face among the accusers that appears toward the end of the program. A young man, ex-LC priest, recounts that Fr. Maciel squeezed his arm and told him how strong he was while they were driving in a car with other passengers from Germany to Belgium back in the ‘90s.
That’s it. Fr. Maciel squeezed his arm.
This guy tearfully tells how later, as a midlevel Vatican official, he read the Courant articles on the web and – recalling the arm squeeze – suddenly realized that it was all horribly, scandalously true. The Founder he had once revered and respected was actually a monster in disguise.
Is it so coldly insensitive to those who have cloaked themselves in the mantle of victimhood to ask if that’s all there is to the story? Who is this guy that a squeeze on the arm, a pat on the back, a fist bump or a high-five reveals to him the hidden immorality of his religious superior? Are we to assume, as the program insinuates, that this accuser abandoned his job in the Vatican, his vocation to the LC and his priesthood because of what he read in the Hartford Courant? Is that really it? Might there not be some factor - other than an arm squeeze and a newspaper article - that induces this young man to reflect on his LC past with hindsight tinged by bitterness or disdain or shame or sadness or whatever?
I’ve said it before. When faced with the choice between my own experience of nearly thirty years in close contact with the Founder and the testimony of others, blurred by unanswered questions... I can only honestly be expected to hold on to what I know to be true. Jason Berry’s film has simply reinforced that conviction.