The Predator Priest

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Oliver O’Grady is a slender, soft-spoken man wandering around Dublin in his windbreaker, the very picture of a retiree living on a modestly fixed income with, perhaps, not quite enough useful activity to occupy an intelligent and still active mind. At first glance he appears to be a pretty standard and uninteresting type; you would pass him in the street without giving him a second thought. If you spoke to him, as documentary director Amy Berg lengthily did, you would find him to be rather bland and affectless, not particularly forthcoming about his long and astonishing career...

...As, so far as one can tell, perhaps the most prolific pedophile in the entire history of the Catholic church, a man whose history, just incidentally, includes the abuse of a nine-month-old child. The good — if finally cashiered and jailed — father is a little vague about the details, which considering the extent of his depredations is perhaps understandable. That is not true of his victims and their parents, several of whom Berg also interviewed extensively. They remember everything, in scarifying detail. The contrast between their often wailing anguish and his pallid disconnectedness is, perhaps, the most vivid, and heartbreaking, aspect of Deliver Us from Evil. Its most chilling sequence finds O’Grady attempting to write letters to some of his victims. He wants to apologize for his crimes, he says, and he is thinking of asking at least some of them to meet with him — almost, one gathers from his tone, for a reunion, a chance to relive the good old days.

Nothing comes of this epistolary effort. Even O’Grady comes to realize that a pleasant little chat around some barbeque pit is not going to set things right. We come to realize, of course, that we are once again in the presence of evil’s banality. We also realize, naturally, that there is no redress for monstrousness of the kind he practiced. Psychopathic behavior of his kind is far beyond the realm of ordinary understanding, let alone forgiveness.

Old photographs reveal the younger O’Grady to have been a handsome man, and some of the victims’ testimony hints at a kind of insinuating charm about the man. You can see how he might worm his way into the good graces of simple, pious people, for whom unquestioning faith is a ruling factor in their lives. Another priest, a church historian, points out that the habits of obedience, especially in a hierarchical religion like Catholicism, are particularly hard to break. And O’Grady was the kind of man who is capable of seducing a mother in order to gain easier access to his real prey, her children, both male and female. The trail of ruined lives he left behind — men and women incapable of marriage, of normal sexual lives — is a palpable sadness in this film. And that says nothing about the damage he did to the religious beliefs that were so important in their humble lives.

Yet these people require some sort of justice to recompense their hurts. In a certain sense, O’Grady is beyond their reach; he’s done his time and he is far, far away from them. But his church abides and the victims are aware that it participated in a vast cover-up, not merely of O’Grady’s crimes, but of other pedophile priests’ abuses as well. Their particular target is Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who is the Archbishop of Los Angeles, but was earlier the bishop of Stockton, Calif., in whose diocese O’Grady worked. They have powerful evidence that whenever complaints about O’Grady’s crimes were brought to his attention Mahoney simply transferred him to another parish, making no attempt to sequester him or to find any meaningful therapy for him — if, indeed, therapy could address a condition as deeply rooted as his.

The Cardinal, of course, denies all. Why, he contends, in a videotaped deposition that Berg has unearthed, he barely knew the man and has no useful memories of him — so many priests under his command, so little time. He has an equally slippery monsignor supporting this claim. Berg has also found letters from Mahoney to O’Grady that suggest he was closer to the priest than he has been letting on. The videotapes are particularly damning. It is fascinating to observe a Prince of the Church rather obviously not telling the whole truth. What a porous recall the man enjoys.

All over the country, including Los Angeles, cash settlements are being awarded to the victims of priestly sexual offenders. But, as the film observes, the church has not openly addressed the problem they present in any substantial way. And we are left angrily wondering whether there is anything, beyond payoffs, that can be done about this situation. You need only watch the smooth and civilized O’Grady, cracking little jokes as he fences with a lawyer, to understand that a few sessions with a shrink are not going to deliver anyone from the evil he represents. Included herein are the ritual appeals for an end to the celibate priesthood, but that’s not going to happen, either — it is an idea too firmly entrenched for successful attack. And one wonders if its end would do any more good than massive psychological counseling. Within a reflexively authoritarian organization, there is plenty of room for the perverse to maneuver while the hierarchy concentrates on defending itself.

Deliver Us from Evil is a gripping and profoundly instructive film, but it is not an effectively prescriptive one. It cries from and for the hearts of victims and leaves its viewers moved, shattered, outraged. And impotent in the face of the ugliness visited on the souls of good and innocent people.