Monday, July 27, 2009

The Corruption of a Higher Power

As the saying goes, "power corrupts - absolute power corrupts absolutely." True as that is, take it a step further - imagine the corruption that extends from absolute power based on the belief that a higher power has ordained it? The scope of that corruption is almost unimaginable.

That's a thread that runs through Deliver Us From Evil, a 2006 Best Documentary nominee about the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Rather than providing a broad overview of the problem, it focuses on the case history of one pedophile priest in California who was, in paradigmatic fashion, shuffled from parish to parish when allegations that he sexually abused young girls and boys would surface. Eventually, the law caught up with Father O'Grady. He served seven years in prison before being deported to his native Ireland.

But it's been the civil suits in the wake of O'Grady's arrest that have uncovered the scope of the cover up in the Church. Was there something about the nature of the Church itself that lent itself to the cover up? Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer, historian, and (we find out eventually) priest suggests there is. He suggests that the doctrine of the Catholic Church dictates that those in power over the laity, from priests on up to the Pope, are an inherently superior class of human being.

In other words, they aren't superior because they wield exceptional power, they wield exceptional power precisely because they are superior to mere mortals. As Doyle explains it, Roger Mahony didn't just cover up O'Grady's repeated crimes to further his own career, but because, in the Church's eyes, the lives of those ordinary children ruined by O'Grady's crimes weren't worth as much as a higher up in the Church hierarchy.

I don't know if Doyle's right, but his argument has a certain appeal. There's a reason, after all, that most of the Western World has thrown off the shackles of monarchy. Many of those monarchs, you'll remember, claimed their authority to rule came from God. And look where that got us?

As for the film itself, it is extraordinarily powerful. The story, in particular, of the Jyono family, brought tears to my eyes at the same time it made me extremely angry. The fact that O'Grady is featured prominently is a bold move on the director's part, as he is (obviously) not a sympathetic character. But his presence in the film really brings it all together. Highly recommended, but a difficult watch.

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