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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO

(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 church's morality.
She also shows us those within the church who have fought to change the
culture, including a priest who was himself abused as a child."

I’ve 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 up-to-date.


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?

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?

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?

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 secret.

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?

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?

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?

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 for themselves.

GTM: Do you think there are answers to prevent this type of thing from happening again? What are they?

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?

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 despair.

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?

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 and budget.

GTM: Can you tell our readers about yourself, your educational background and how you ended up at the University of Rhode Island?

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 at <flicksart@aol.com>