By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
(June 2005) The film’s
topic is ripped out of the front headlines of newspapers
from across the country: sexual abuse by the clergy.
It is a bleak, disturbing situation that challenges
people of faith and has wrecked havoc with a sense of
trust. It is also a story few want to touch since the
implications are so far-reaching. However, one local
filmmaker has dared to explore this dark underbelly
that seems to demand to be hidden, even swept under
the carpet and forgotten.
Mary Healey-Conlon, a film instructor at the University
of Rhode Island, decided to rise to the challenge and
has produced an equally stunning and shocking documentary;
“HOLY WATER-GATE, ABUSE COVER-UP IN THE
CATHOLIC CHURCH.” The film has been picked
up by the Showtime Cable Network; it’s power and
scope an undeniable testament to Mary’s tenacity
and commitment to see her work reach the widest possible
audience. The film has been broadcast on SBS/Australia,
RTSI/Switzerland and will be airing on CBC/Canada, DR/Denmark
and TVE/Spain in the next several months. It will also
receive its official festival world premiere in August
at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
Those who have seen and reviewed the film have been
high in their praise. According to the Sydney (Australia)
Morning Herald, “Bearing witness to a dramatic
unfolding of historic events, the filmmaker spends over
four years gathering stories from all sides of the clergy
sex abuse crisis. Resisting simplistic or sensational
explanations, Holy Water-Gate instead bravely investigates
disturbing and unanswered questions of this tragedy,
providing razor sharp insight into the causation and
consequences of the sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
Holy Water-Gate has exclusive access to key players
in the crisis: John Bambrick, a young priest who was
himself molested by a priest as a young adolescent,
then charged in 2002 in the canon court for speaking
about the abuse he suffered; Francis Cardinal George,
Chairman to the Vatican’s Commission on Sex Abuse
Policy; and most shockingly, Father William C., an admitted
perpetrator priest who explains the culture of the institution
and the methods used by church and civil authorities
to conceal his sex crimes against children.
" ...This very personal tale by American filmmaker
Mary Healey-Conlon peels
away the protective shell of a damaged church. Along
the way, it shows how
the rest of society, in particular the media, is almost
as culpable for
averting its eyes and ears for so long. ...Healey-Conlon
puts some history
behind the actions of both the church and its pursuers
and shows how it was
the protection of power and prestige that crippled the
She also shows us those within the church who have fought
to change the
culture, including a priest who was himself abused as
known Mary for a number of years and have been impressed
by her talent, vision and creativity. Her level of commitment
to what she believes in is truly inspiring. I’ve
followed her development of this documentary for over
four years, and have seen her frustrations, challenges
and successes. An early work print I viewed illustrated
the power of the story she was telling. But there were
unanswered questions. No longer. It is to her credit
that she has continued to follow developments within
and outside the Church to keep the film topical and
We sat down recently at the University
of Rhode Island’s Visualizations Film Festival
and discussed her work, how it has impacted on her own
life and what she learned from the process. Mary was
a bit tired, yet exhilarated by the reaction her film
was receiving. We spoke about teaching and the old cliché
about “those who can’t do, teach.”
Mary is definitely not from that mold. Then we spoke
about her documentary…
GTM: What drove you to do a documentary on the
sexual abuse controversy that has recently been a cloud
over the Catholic Church?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: In 1999 I decided to make
the film when I realized that victims I came to know,
were simply not believed by many in press and the public.
I was raised Catholic, and my grandfather was a deacon
in the Church. He served with a priest by the name of
Father Silva, who I knew as a child.
After college I began working as a legal assistant and
continued doing that work while teaching and running
my production company. It turned out that Fr. Silva
was accused of abuse - and that I knew one of his victims.
It was shocking to me. Bishop Gelineau told the family
of the victim, and my grandfather that Fr. Silva wouldn't
serve in a ministry with children again. Despite this
promise, Silva was transferred to numerous other parishes
throughout the state where he perpetrated more abuse
against children. That is where the film begins. It
then quickly moves into other survivors stories as well
as stories of other key figures in the crisis, including
a perpetrator priest (Fr. William), Fr. Tom Doyle and
Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. The film also threads
the story of how the media grappled with the issue at
various points from 1985 to 2004. Clearly, media scrutiny
has had a tremendous impact on reporting of cases and
also uncovering massive information concerning the depth
and breadth of the crisis.
I felt very strongly that including some examination
of the media's role was important to understanding the
larger issues of the film.
GTM: When did you first begin the project and how long
has it taken to realize its completion?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: I began the project in
1999 and completed editing in June 2004. Since June
'04 I have been working on the promotion and publicity
and other administrative aspects of the business of
this film. Since the problem of sexual abuse by priests
is so vast (as you look at the numbers around the country
and around the Globe) there are still scores of cases
(criminal and civil) every week. The film is more timely
and relevant than ever before.
GTM: What did you personally learn while doing this
piece that surprised you and came unexpectedly?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: The church (the institution
I and millions of others were raised in) used all means
necessary to keep this nightmare under wraps. They used
their power and prestige to keep the depth of the problem
They used their influence with law enforcement to keep
victims and their families from prosecuting cases. Almost
as a matter of policy (whether written or not) they
would promise victims and their families that perpetrators
would be isolated and kept away from kids, but instead
Bishops would place these men in new parishes to work
with a new set of unsuspecting children. This is exactly
what happened with Fr. Silva (RI), Fr. William (IL),
Fr. Leifeld (WI), Fr. Hanley (NJ), Fr. Aramito (NY/NJ),
and Fr. Warren (OH). All these men are subjects of the
film. I didn't intend to tell the larger tale of the
abuse crisis. But when The Boston Globe story broke
in 2002 and an international chain reaction took place,
I knew the scope of film was going to be larger than
what I originally planned. I originally thought I was
going to make a specifically Rhode Island-focused film.
There are so many people affected here.
According to the Diocese of Providence’s own numbers,
there are over 50 priests and one nun accused of abuse.
While I was filming, there were 39 cases before the
RI courts. Rhode Island is the smallest yet most Catholic
State in the country. All of these factors made it a
compelling story on its own. But when the coverage began
to intensify in 2002 I suspected I had enough background
and contacts and deep enough understanding of the subject
matter to thoughtfully document events that were emerging
in a way that could be significant. The trickiest part
of the whole story was that it kept going, moving, shifting.
I filmed over 250 hours of footage in Rhode Island,
Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, DC, St. Louis,
Rome, Perugia, Assisi, Dallas, Virginia. The only resources
I had were interns and later Co-Producer and Rep Louise
Rosen and Director of Photography Ned Miller. As Louise
often joked, I had a tiger by the tail, but I had already
such a commitment to the film I never considered stopping.
I literally could still be filming as so many significant
events have occurred since June 2004.
GTM: What, if anything, has inspired you from the people
you met while on the journey of pulling this film together?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: All of the individuals
in the film have endured enormous pain and tragedy.
Some are advocates, some leaders; some reflect the pathetic
and sad embodiment of human evil. The question for me
(and for the audience) is what do you do when you are
confronted with this kind of evil?
Do you pretend it’s not there, run away, look
away? Doing nothing in response to knowledge that someone
is being abused is making a decision. Because of the
nature of the film that it touches upon spiritual and
moral questions, I had to reflect genuinely upon how
those questions could be thoughtfully represented in
the film. The participants in the film do this, and
since I make the edit decisions my hand casts which
of those voices articulate those morals. The survivors
- the depth and breadth of their strength and their
pain and their courage kept me going when I was exhausted,
broke or both. Honestly, at every turn, when I thought
I was out of money SOME MIRACLE happened and someone
would step in to help - whether that was my mom or dad,
my friends, my colleagues. Thankfully I could refinance
my house a couple times and use that to finish the film
or pay for E&O insurance.
GTM: What would you like viewers to take away
from viewing the film?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: I hope the film helps people
reflect upon the survivors’ stories, the story
of Fr. Tom Doyle, the story of the perpetrator priest
(Fr. William) and the comments of Cardinal George. I
hope the audience will gain insights as to how this
crisis happened and what enabled it to continue for
so long. As you read any newspaper in any given week,
you can see it is still continuing. Most importantly,
I hope that people really learn from the stories of
the survivors and the perpetrator as to the characteristic
behaviors of a perpetrator. The psychological dimension
of how a perpetrator grooms his victims is presented
through several survivors’ stories. If this knowledge
helps someone to keep a child safe and a perpetrator
away from children, that’s a tremendous accomplishment.
I hope that all survivors and their families (whether
or not they are clergy abuse survivors) might find a
measure of comfort or a measure of hope from the survivors
in the film.
GTM: Without sounding naive, why do you think
this film is so controversial? Why so it scare people
when you mention such documentary exists?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: The film isn't controversial.
It is wrong to sexually abuse children. It is wrong
to protect men who sexually abuse children, and both
are criminal acts. We have been focusing this issue
as a crisis of faith instead of equally as a crisis
within our criminal justice system. When law enforcement
shows deference to a perpetrator based upon their religion
or power and that enables that perpetrator to then commit
more crimes against children, that is a crisis of our
criminal justice system. When the system fails to protect
children, that is a crisis.
The crisis of faith that is created by this is what
perhaps makes the film title "controversial"
- we must look at and examine and re-write the truth
of what we know. Is that controversial? It is uncomfortable
and certainly places us in new territory with ourselves.
It is not a sin to recognize evil and call it what it
is. It is difficult, but frankly it is required if we
are truly going to deal with the problem, and it is
OUR INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY to grapple with this,
because children do not have the capacity to advocate
GTM: Do you think there are answers to prevent
this type of thing from happening again? What are they?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: The answer to prevention
is several fold:
We cannot deny that this has happened, is happening
or will happen again - it WILL HAPPEN in every realm
of society. Child sexual abuse is an enormous global
problem. People sexually attracted to children will
find a way to gratify themselves. Sad to say, most children
will be abused by someone they KNOW WELL. What do WE
do about this?
The secular response is that we must be willing to look
at our own denial - if someone is trying to "normalize"
you or your child to inappropriate behavior, that's
a RED FLAG: pay attention to that, don't minimize it.
Many so-called "nice, wonderful" people abuse
children. That's the disturbing truth. These men presented
as kind, good men. The spiritual response to your question
is that we must develop our own capacity to understand
and recognize human evil. The last words of the film
are from Peter Isely, a psychotherapist and also a survivor
whose story is included in the film. Peter graduated
from Harvard Divinity School and we spoke for hours
upon hours about this very question.
Here are Peter's Isely's last words of the film:
"Ultimately, it requires courage on the part of
every individual. This is really about learning what
we don’t want to learn about: the knowledge about
human evil. And if we can be with that knowledge, then
we can make a decent society. But if we can’t
be with that knowledge, one way or the other, these
predators will find a way; because we don’t want
to believe it. We all want to be the last survivors".
GTM: Cardinal Francis George whom you interviewed from
Chicago stated that a resolution was in God's hands.
Is that a bit too glib and an avoidance of corrective
action that should have taken place a long time ago?
Any other sexual predator in our society who is caught
would not be given the treatment these priests were
given; so why the ostrich head-in-the-sand attitude?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: Cardinal Francis George
does not have his head in the sand. None of these Cardinals
or bishops have their head in the sand. They may wish
you to think that. They DO "GET IT". They
are perhaps some of the most brilliant, powerful men
in the country and they know FULL WELL what has happened,
what they've done and how they've done it. Perhaps that's
where the "controversy" question comes in
- if that is true, that these men "get it",
what does it mean for the greater Church? This is a
very important question to which I have no answer, just
Ask yourself, if the Globe Story had not run, how many
more priests would continue to rape children? After
the Globe story ran 9 priests were removed from the
Archdiocese of Chicago.
I will not try to characterize what Cardinal George's
thinking or morals are. His words speak for themselves.
His morals are very clearly constructed and articulated.
He speaks four languages and taught philosophy. The
viewers can draw their own conclusions. I ask the viewers
to trust their own judgments and instincts based upon
what they see, not based upon what I say.
GTM: What advise would you give an aspiring
student filmmaker about tackling such a topic?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: That would take a month,
I don't know off hand. I can't begin to advise another
on how to deal with this. Every part of you is forced
into re-examination because of the profound ghastliness
of the story. As a filmmaker you're telling the story
on other's behalves, it's a giant risk and a giant responsibility
that I don't take lightly. Life is complex and so it's
a challenge to represent/reflect the complexity of life
in a documentary. It's easier to simplify it by a 'good
guy'/'bad guy' ... when in fact there are multiple dimensions
that require representation. I'd like to believe that
the complexity of the story has been adequately represented,
but the truth is there are thousands of dimensions and
sub-stories that simply couldn't be told due to time
GTM: Can you tell our readers about yourself,
your educational background and how you ended up at
the University of Rhode Island?
MARY HEALEY-CONLON: I am a graduate of Rhode
Island College with a degree in Political Science and
Philosophy. I studied in France while at RIC, studying
French and Political Science. I was also a member of
the Debate Team and attended World Debating Championships
in Glasgow, Scotland in 1990. I attended Emerson College
and received an MA in Mass Communication, Television
Production in 1994. I began my production work immediately
after graduating from Emerson, working at Olive Jar
Animation in Boston as a freelancer and also growing
my own business. I began teaching at URI in 1996 and
have continued to work teaching and running my production
company to the present.
GTM: Thanks Mary. If our readers would like
more information about the film, they should go to www.holy-water-gate.com
About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the
Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the
creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film
Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director.
He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College
and speech communications and documentary film at Roger
Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer
of commercials and industrials for numerous business
clients in the region and is currently completing the
multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting
American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached