By Francine Taylor
June 30, 2005 - 6:19 AM PDT
Twist of Faith, a documentary from award-winning director Kirby Dick and producer Eddie Schmidt, was nominated for an Academy Award, screened as part of the documentary competition at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and won the audience award at the recent Amnesty International Film Festival. Broadcast on HBO on June 28, the film opens in selected theaters in New York and San Francisco on July 1 and in Los Angeles on July 22.
Late May, the Amnesty International Film Festival. The Director's Guild Theater on Sunset Blvd was packed for the Los Angeles premiere of Twist of Faith. Following the film, a departure from the traditional Q&A for filmmakers: in keeping with the atmosphere of the festival, a panel discussion was led by Twist's producer, Eddie Schmidt, and four individuals involved in some aspect of clergy abuse cases: Bill Hodgman, Head Deputy District Attorney of the Target Crimes Division for Los Angeles, Jean Guccione a writer for the Los Angeles Times, Ray Boucher, a Partner of Kiesel, Boucher & Lawson, and Mary Staggs Grant, Western Regional Director of the Southern California division of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).
Kirby Dick's Twist of Faith focuses on one survivor of clergy sexual abuse, Tony Comes. By sometimes allowing the subject and his family to film themselves without a crew present, it allows for an extraordinarily honest peek at the larger ripples created by Tony's past experience. Comes, an Ohio fireman, faces a crisis when he moves into a new neighborhood with his wife and children, finding that the sexual abuser of his teen years lives just a few houses down from him. From Tony's tearful self-exploration of why he could not and did not resist the advances of Father Dennis Gray, to his wife's brave candor in discussing how the abuse has impacted their marriage and sex life, to Tony's explanation of his abuse to his eight-year-old daughter, who will soon take her first communion, and to Tony's frustration with his mother for continuing to support the Roman Catholic Church, one is acutely aware of the absence of any interviews with representatives of the Church in the film. (The Church declined any interviews, as did Dennis Gray.)
The emotional tone created by these most personal glimpses into Tony's past and present is juxtaposed very simply with footage of Dennis Gray's deposition: flat, non-emotional and non-contrite. The structure of the film works brilliantly because, although it's a documentary, the film plays out very much like a drama as we watch Tony's life severely tested and impacted by his decision to file a lawsuit against the Toledo Diocese.
Watching the film, I was struck not only by the intensity of the subject matter, but an almost palpable sense of what others felt around me. As the panel discussion began, Jean Guccione, who has written extensively on this issue, pointed out that the reason we've seen so many abuse cases in the Roman Catholic church, as opposed to other Christian denominations in the US, is that other denominations allow church members to have some power in removing clergy, while the Roman Catholic church's policy excludes "lay" people from such decisions.
Attorney Ray Boucher, who represents hundreds of Southern California plantiffs in the diocese of Los Angeles, believes that the pervasiveness of these cases also stems from the "doctrine of secrecy" entrenched in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. In the film, Tony Comes learns that Catholic clergy are allowed to lie if they are "protecting" the Church, a Church Canon known as "mental reservation". Guccione further acknowledged that part of the strategy of the Catholic Church's pattern of fighting vs. settling these cases is to both stall for time and to keep detailed stories out of the newspapers in the meantime.
District Attorney Bill Hodgman, who has investigated approximately one hundred allegations of priests abusing children, gave examples of the Catholic Church stonewalling a number of cases he has worked on in Los Angeles County for the last two to three years. One case, Stogner vs. California (2003) (539 U.S. 607), went all the way to the Supreme Court to debate a limited statute and lost to a 5/4 split. The result was that all eleven cases tied up in this litigation were dismissed, cases that Hodgman characterized as "electrifying, shocking and sickening." Hodgman explained that the loss resulted the most profound pain for any victims he had ever witnessed in his career. Hodgman is currently working on a case that issued its first subpoena in June 2002 because the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is refusing to disclose documents. The case is now in the Court of Appeals - and will probably take another estimated year and a half to go to the Supreme Court.
The panel discussion reinforced a primary point of the film: that there has been just as much pain from the responses (or non-responses) by the Catholic Church as from the original abuse. "Zero tolerance has been accepted as fact by the public and media," when there are still cases of priests practicing in the Los Angeles diocese despite allegations against them, Boucher explained.
In the film, when Tony Comes demands an apology from the Bishop of Toledo for the alleged sexual abuse by Dennis Gray, Comes is assured that he was Gray's only victim: "He said it with more sincerity than anyone I have ever heard. I believed, because of who he was, who he represented and his position in the Church, that he was telling me the truth," Comes explains emotionally in one scene of the film. Comes discovers shortly thereafter that not only is he not Gray's only victim but that many of Gray's victims were acquaintances at his parish and the parochial school where Gray was on the faculty. These were boys who spent weekends or summer days at Gray's lake house, "The Cottage," where Gray invited many of his victims to visit: "What happens at the cottage, stays at the cottage." Though the exact number of Gray's victims is unknown, ten people have filed lawsuits against him.
Unfortunately, Bishop James Hoffman, the Bishop who "apologized" to Comes, died before he had a chance to be deposed. Says one church officiant, eulogizing at Hoffman's memorial service: "Those who would theologize and philosophize about the question of good and evil... would always explain that we choose what we think is good. We always act from what we think are the best motives, at least for our own peace of mind.... Of course, the greater the power a person has, the more necessary it is to acknowledge fallibility, to ask forgiveness while doing the best they can. And to trust the Lord to do the judging."
Towards the end of the panel discussion, SNAP Regional Director Grant asked for any victims of sexual abuse by clergy to stand up. Fifteen or twenty people stood in the audience, which could explain some of the palpable intensity I had noticed while viewing the film. Ray Boucher commented on his experience of working with victims of clergy abuse: "For many people who have been abused by priests, Twist of Faith is their story."
Director Kirby Dick offers his own thoughts: "The film is surprisingly political, but in a different way than a lot of the films that came out last year - it really seems to change people's minds on the subject. I didn't set out to make a political film. I was more interested in focusing on the deep personal trauma of the experience of clergy sexual abuse. After seeing how audiences react, we have begun to use it as a political tool by screening it in a variety of contexts. In this era of the political film, Twist of Faith is political in a different way - it is not from the left, not preaching to the converted - it actually changes people's minds and, as David Clohessy said in our film at the national SNAP meeting, their work 'saves lives' - literally."
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"Political in a different way."
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... has written plays and screenplays, fiction and poetry. She lives in Los Angeles.
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