Father Oliver O'Grady is a parish priest straight from an old Bing Crosby movie, an Irishman with a soft brogue and a modest, gentle manner. Those attributes must have helped ingratiate him with the dozens of families whose children—including one 9-month-old baby—he molested over a period of 20 years, as church leaders studiedly turned the other cheek.
Deliver Us From Evil, the first feature-length documentary from director Amy Berg, is not one of your pass-the-popcorn date movies. It's a howl of rage and a keen-eyed study of a subject that, unfortunately, never stops being news: the way institutional power acts as a shield under whose cover the strong can abuse the weak. When Dennis Hastert wakes up Monday morning, there should be a copy of this movie on his desk.
From 1973, when O'Grady's first offense occurred, until he finally went to jail in 1993, he was shuttled from parish to parish in Central California, often after outraged parents were assured that he would be defrocked or at least removed from contact with children. Roger Mahony, the Los Angeles archbishop who oversaw O'Grady's protection for decades, is now a cardinal in the Catholic Church. The film argues persuasively that Mahony orchestrated the O'Grady cover-up to protect his own career.
But what makes Deliver Us From Evil so powerful is O'Grady himself, now living in Ireland after serving seven years of a 14-year sentence. For reasons that never quite emerge, he agrees to meet with Amy Berg for hours of intimate interviews, some of them conducted confessional-style, on a church pew. While he never denies his crimes—indeed, he seems to have a compulsive need to recall them—O'Grady displays a bone-chilling level of dissociation from the suffering caused by his acts. His musical voice never rises above a murmur as he dispenses euphemisms about how "cuddling" and "being affectionate" escalated to "inappropriate touching." These scenes alternate with interviews with his now-grown victims, both male and female, who strip that language bare with their stark accounts of vaginal and anal rape.
The most wrenching of these interviews focus on the Jyonos, a once-devout family whom O'Grady was close to for many years. Invited to sleep over at their house on a regular basis, he molested their daughter Ann from the age of 5 through 12. "I handed Ann over to him on a silver platter," her mother states baldly, as Ann's father (who loses his faith over the course of the movie's shooting) weeps on the couch beside her.
Like many tragedies that happen on a grand scale, pedophilia in the Catholic Church can be an eye-glazing topic in the abstract. We all want to acknowledge that it's a bad thing—child molestation? I'm against it—then move on as soon as possible, because, frankly, yuck.
Crimes against children are also associated with a certain shrill tone of media histrionics (think Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" series on TV). Berg, a former television producer, knows better than to fall into this trap. Though the O'Grady interviews are, narratively speaking, her ace in the hole, the perpetrator himself ultimately remains opaque, and Berg wisely refrains from overfocusing on his pathology. The film is less revealing as a portrait of a sick individual than as a critique of institutional power. Is Father O'Grady more or less evil than his superiors, who, fully cognizant of his tendencies, kept him in positions of authority over children for year after year after year?
What may be hard to stomach for some Catholics is Berg's intimation that cases like O'Grady's are not merely terrible moments in the church's history, but intrinsic to its structure. After all, as a psychologist specializing in clergy abuse points out, if all sex acts outside of marriage are regarded as sinful by the church, what's to differentiate child molestation from adult consensual sex? Another interviewee, a scholar of the church, points out that 10 percent of graduates from one well-known seminary are known pedophiles and wonders whether the church's refusal to relinquish the celibacy requirement might not be attracting sexual deviants to the priesthood.
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's comparison of the church to the Mafia drew widespread ire when he made it in 2003, but Berg's rigorous investigation of the O'Grady affair can't help but give it some credence. Watching Cardinal Mahony lie, mumble, squirm, and lie some more in taped court depositions also can't help but evoke the Watergate hearings—Mahony even looks a little like Nixon. But whether you think of the pedophilia scandal as organized crime, as political allegory, or just as a tragic aberration, Berg makes a compelling case that it went all the way to the top. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, helped tweak church law to prevent the internal release of documents that might incriminate pedophile priests. After Ratzinger took office as the new pope, he requested immunity from investigation from George W. Bush—a favor he needn't have asked for, since all heads of state are automatically granted diplomatic immunity.
If I had any complaint to make about Deliver Us From Evil, it might have to do with the film's score, which lays it on a little thick with the ironic use of Gregorian chants and other religious music and with a closing-credits cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." When you have material this potent, the audience's emotional buttons need no extra pushing.