A Matter of Conscience: Confronting Clergy Abuse: Why We Produced This New Documentary Film

For us, Susan and John Michalczyk, it all started with a radio program on National Public Radio.  Susan heard Bob Hoatson, the Co-Founder of Road to Recovery in New Jersey, address issues of clergy sexual abuse.  Susan later recounted the content of the program to John, a documentary filmmaker. We invited Bob to our home outside of Boston, the so-called epicenter of the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and we discussed our plans to produce a documentary on the survivors. John had produced 20 documentary films on global conflict resolution and disabilities, many of which were broadcast on television nationally and some internationally.  Susan had worked on scripts, narrations, and voice-overs for some of these films. Meeting Bob gave us the spark needed to initiate a film production unlike others we produced.consciencepic

What ensued was a chain reaction that brought together a host of individuals, lay and clergy, advocates and attorneys, all committed to supporting survivors abused by pedophile priests.  Once the research was completed, interviews were filmed.  These were very tragic narratives recounted by the survivors.  The transcriber of the interviews said she would type a few paragraphs and cry, then type some more and cry again. Kris Merrill, Jerry Sypek, Bob Hoatson, Alexa McPherson, Helen McGonigle, and Dave Carney spoke from their fragmented souls about the consequences of being abused by someone who represented God to them. Although the psychological scars were apparent, they remarked, and healing would take a lifetime, in Bob Hoatson’s words, these survivors offered a clear and honest insight into the harm done by a clerical predator.

With a very moving script by Susan, the result was our first documentary on the topic of clerical sexual transgressions, Who Takes Away the Sins: Witnesses to Clergy Abuse that was premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in May 2013, and then screened there again for three evenings in October 2013.  The panels of the participants spoke eloquently of the need to reform the Catholic Church and urged the hierarchy to commit themselves to accountability and transparency.  Since 2013, the film has been shown on local cable stations and then widely from classrooms and college programs to gatherings of the Voice of the Faithful. Our website (www.etoileproductionsusa.com) provided us with the opportunity to include many further poignant comments by the participants which were unable to be included in the one-hour documentary.

We did not let the urgency of the subject die out.  Soon we embarked on a sequel to the film following Susan’s initial idea of tracking down men and women of conscience who reported clergy abuse and were sanctioned by the Church leaders.  Some were ostracized, removed from their positions, and deemed disloyal.  Others were looked at as traitors to their religious order or Church for breaking the code of silence.  Once again, Bob Hoatson as Field Producer contacted his colleagues of the “Catholic Whistleblowers,” inviting them to participate in the documentary. Frs. Patrick Collins, Ronald Lemmert, Bruce Teague, James Connell, and Thomas Patrick Doyle, as well as Srs. Maureen Paul Turlish, Sally Butler, and Claire Smith all agreed to be interviewed, mostly in an office in New York, thanks to the graciousness of Marci Hamilton of the Carodozo School of Law who also provided insights into the extensive phenomenon of abuse in all types of religions and institutions.

Those who generously participated in the project also included from Boston, Mitchell Garabedian, the attorney for countless survivors of clergy abuse, and Anne Barrett-Doyle of BishopAccountability.org.  Anne offered us an insight into their research in documenting the history of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church.  Their files provided us with the necessary documentation to reinforce the interviews held in New York and Boston.

The documentary opens with a bridge from the earlier film by way of survivors recounting how the abuse by priests shattered their lives.  How could this have happened in a Catholic Church that professes to be the highest moral authority in the world, we ask. The film attempts to answer this—with the silence of the laity, the lack of transparency and accountability in the Church hierarchy, and the cover-up from the local dioceses to the steps of the Vatican in Rome, “the evil wolves,” according to Fr. Ronald Lemmert citing Ezekiel 34, entered the sheepfold and lay waste to the innocent sheep.  Using an expression first discussed in the past by Thomas Doyle and reiterated here by Marci Hamilton and Bruce Teague in the film, the evil doers committed “soul murder.”

Each participant in the film discusses how they came to report issues of clergy sexual abuse and, despite serious repercussion for their actions,  how they continue to advocate on the behalf of survivors. Above all, the interviewees caution us not to be neutral, for the bystanders allow evil to occur.  In The Inferno, Dante considers the neutrals as the lowest of the low.

Lastly, the documentary offers both the survivors and advocates a voice by which they can educate us about the perils of maintaining silence, which allows a child to be sacrificed for the so-called greater good of an institution.