MPAA Rating: Unrated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating: Unrated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
The worldwide sexual abuse crisis is a subject I deliberately avoided for many years. When it first came to light in the mid-2000s, my initial reaction was disbelief and denial. I had been interacting with priests frequently, many times alone, since I was small and never once had experienced any sort of sexual suggestion or action. I remember having long, private talks with my pastor and high school chaplain, both of whom became important mentors.
Gradually, however, the evidence that some priests had abused children and many bishops had covered their crimes became impossible to ignore. Inevitably, books, documentaries, and films followed, including Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2015.
Now comes By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu), a French film, which details the real-life abuses of Fr. Bernard Preynat and the failures of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, who would eventually be convicted of failing to report his crimes. It’s a difficult topic that will still be examined many years from now, but as an educator is impossible to ignore.
Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud) has a seemingly perfect life: a good job, a caring wife, and five well adjusted children. Yet, he is reminded of his troubled childhood after discovering that the priest who molested him at a summer camp, Fr. Preynat (Bernard Verley), is not only still in active ministry but is frequently around children. When Alexandre’s meeting with Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) proves fruitless, he files a criminal suit against Preynat despite passing the statute of limitations. This encourages fellow abuse victim François (Denis Ménochet) to form Lift the Burden, an organization of victims dedicated to confronting the Church about Preynat. Through their publicity, they meet Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), a distressed young man and fellow victim. His abuse occurred more recently and may be the key to convicting Preynat.
The director of the movie is François Ozon, a stereotypical French filmmaker, famous for movies with existential speeches, amoral characters, and constant female nudity. Probably his best known work in the United States was the erotic thriller Swimming Pool, which is about an aging writer and a young nymphomaniac who attempt to cover up the murder of their mutual lover. Fortunately, he shows remarkable restraint, especially in the depictions of abuse, instead focusing on the emotional and psychological effects on the victims. Alexandre has responded extraordinarily well and is still active in the Catholic Church. Jaded by decades of family struggle, François has become an atheist but is still mentally sound, with a loving wife and new daughter. Emmanuel has the worst of it: anxious, angry, and suffering from epilepsy, he hasn’t had a steady job in years and has a toxic relationship with his current girlfriend. Ozon also does an excellent job of pacing the film, slowly revealing the events and building tension like a well-crafted mystery novel.
At first, Alexandre only wants to make sure Preynat does not have contact with children so that no one has to experience his pain. Gradually, Lift the Burden begins to expand its aspirations, collecting testimony, reaching out to the media, and campaigning to change the statute of limitations on sexual abuse. Soon, they become obsessed with publicity to that point that Alexandre begins to retreat from the group. François wants to formally apply to apostatize from the Church (a process that I don’t think even exists), and encourages everyone to follow. He then proposes a plan to hire a skywriter to make “a dick in the sky” over the Vatican because it will create “a big buzz.” Oddly, nearly everyone seems onboard with this ridiculous plan. Unfortunately, this mirrors real life groups that perhaps with good intentions but become reckless in their thirst for revenge. One member comments that they “want the Church to evolve” and that they need to “fight the Institution.” These organizations often shift from addressing sexual abuse to focusing on issues such as priestly celibacy or female ordination.
The response from the Church hierarchy in Lyon is equally frustrating. When Alexandre and Preynat first meet, the priest acknowledges he “caused harm” but doesn’t ask for forgiveness, insisting he is simply “sick”. Barbarin seems genuine in his desire to help the victims but only talks about policies and procedures, acting more like a lawyer or politician than a shepherd. In their contact with the victims, there is always the appearance of movement but never any real progress.
What is completely absent from the discussion is the reality of sin. Neither the victims nor the Church authorities label these crimes as evil. There is little sense of right or wrong, only whether experiences were positive or negative. The real concern is always defined in terms of the world, such as physical institutions or mental capabilities. Emmanuel is partially upset with Preynat’s abuse because he claims it led to a curved penis, which has hurt his ability to attract women. This is perhaps why, even now 2019, that Theodore McCarrick continues to insist on his innocence. If it didn’t hurt him, apparently, it didn’t happen.
The film ends with a whimper. Yes, Barbarin and Preynat were exposed but nether suffered any significant consequences. In the credits, the audience learns that Barbarin eventually resigned as Archbishop of Lyon, although Pope Francis rejected his resignation (and Barbarin still retains the title of Archbishop). He was convicted of failing to report abuse of minor and given a suspended sentence. Preynat, meanwhile, was eventually dismissed from the clerical state.
Many victims, of course, have not been reconciled with the Church, and some of them continue to blame the entire Church and her teachings for their suffering. Fortunately, there have been good signs from both laypeople and clergy who are faithful to the gospel of Christ and understand that this is, ultimately, a spiritual battle fought in the soul well before or after the courtroom. Our ultimate hope lies in Jesus Christ, and we should not base our understanding of Him on the horrible sins of those who betray both His word and His Bride.
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