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the protocol of the elders of Boston

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jan 18, 2007

On Leila's advice, I skipped the opening chapter and watched the rest of the documentary Hand of God, produced by a native of Salem, Massachusetts, concerning the sexual abuse of his brother, Paul Cultrera, by the late Fr. Joseph Birmingham of the Archdiocese of Boston. You can watch it chapter by chapter here.

There are a lot of shoddy video effects that distract from the story, which remains convincing in spite of the amateurish joinery and the scattershot tendentiousness. Cultrera's mother and father come through with particular vividness. We've met these folks. Their pain, and their confusion about their pain, is tough to watch. Bewildered, they talk much nonsense about the Church. Perhaps there's no such thing as a normal reaction to the kind of betrayal inflicted on them, and they come across not so much as angry as blitzed out of their natural senses.

The documentary centers not on the sexual villainy of Birmingham but, fittingly, on the duplicity and moral cowardice of Father, now Bishop, John McCormack. McCormack not only lied about his awareness of the sexual predations of his seminary classmate and rectory housemate Birmingham, but gave false assurances to worried parents who had guessed the truth about him -- this when McCormack was Archdiocesan Secretary for Ministerial Personnel. Cultrera's dealings with McCormack began in 1994, after he first reported his abuse of thirty years earlier and McCormack, to keep him mum, fed him smoke.

Paul Cultrera's own testimony I found the most compelling part of the film. He's not brilliant or well-spoken. His discourses on the Church of his youth show he was imperfectly catechised then, and, with a pathetic irony, the adult sometimes falls back on more recently learned pop-psych jargon that he grasps about as well as his catechism. But what he has to tell us about Birmingham and McCormack rings true. And his suffering is plain.

Most of what the Hand of God has to tell us could be conveyed more effectively in print. The views of Cultrera speaking make a difference. We see what the damage really looks like. He shows a rodent-like tenseness in trying to keep control of his voice. He's fragile. And it drives home to us how a deft opportunist like McCormack could read the signs and take advantage of the fragility of a victim who appealed to him for redress. A gesture of sympathy, a word of reassurance, an expedient lie, and -- presto! -- another bureaucratic problem is consigned to oblivion.

We've seen before how the injuries inflicted by sexual abuse are vexingly ambivalent testimony to the abuse itself. If a child claims his stepfather abused him physically, his limp and the scars from the cigarette burns increase his credibility. If a child claims a priest abused him sexually, the psychological damage he manifests often undercuts his credibility -- at least his credibility as an accuser of such-and-such a man as the perp. In Cultrera's face and voice one can see that he's aware of this diminishment and of his vulnerability to being dismissed as a delusional psychotic.

John McCormack is a bishop in good standing, sailing with all canvas aloft toward honorable retirement. His failings, since the harm they caused was confined to the spiritual realm, do not imperil his career. The documentary doesn't provide any happy endings. In an oblique and paradoxical way, though, a glimmer of hope may be found in Paul Cultrera's attempt to trash the Church and the authority of her bishops (see Chapter 9, about 3 minutes into the clip), which is so unconvincing that it speaks to the opposite conclusion. Cultrera knows he "has permission" to be angry at the Church and he knows he's entitled (in his therapists' perspective) to reject her and her authority over him. Yet even though he dutifully mouths the approved blasphemies against her, there isn't any real heat or conviction behind them. They're thin. In spite of what he says, he seems more obviously distressed by being robbed of his faith than relieved to be free of a childhood myth or illusion. In fact, Cultrera gives the impression that, if an authoritative churchman were ever to speak the truth to him about Birmingham and McCormack and the cover-up, ever to make an offer of real spiritual help, he'd seize on it. But to take such an initiative requires a concern for Cultrera's eternal life.

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  • Posted by: Remigius - Jan. 20, 2007 10:45 AM ET USA

    Uncle Di, This, tragically, is an irrefutable statement regarding the Bishop; "His failings, since the harm they caused was confined to the spiritual realm, do not imperil his career." Papal Nuncios, who promote candidates for the episcopacy, would do well to see this film and read this review.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jan. 19, 2007 7:03 PM ET USA

    Something to meditate upon:

    "When Birmingham was molesting me, there was that sense I was going through some strange indoctrination, some ritual. Along with trying to get some sexual gratification, he was trying to change my life, he was trying to take me out of the realm of young boys who were going to have a normal sexual life. Because he had given that up, he was going to say "ok paul" you don't get it either. I'm going to put this darkness in your life."  Paul C.  Chapter 8

  • Posted by: - Jan. 19, 2007 11:20 AM ET USA

    Very well done commentary by Diogenes. One of the posters had a sad but telling scene wrong - it was not McCormack but a very nasty Lennon (the interim bishop after Law and before Abp O'Mally) who tried to block the photographing of the chancery and called Cultrera a "sad little man," Lennon apparently being large of stature but small of mind. Clearly what should happen next is the resignation of McCormack. As an evident enabler of criminal assault he should probably be in prison.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 19, 2007 10:07 AM ET USA

    Here's to dear old Boston, The Land of the Bean and the Cod; Where the Bishops answer only to Cardinals [OConnell, Medeiros, Cushing, Law & O'Malley]; And the Cardinals only answer to God [ & Pius XII, P VI, JP II, & B XVI]! Holy Cross, '53 & BC Law '56

  • Posted by: Meg Q - Jan. 19, 2007 12:59 AM ET USA

    You know, I've got a real warm feeling in my chest, just . . . a real emotional swelling near my heart . . . . . . oops, sorry, no, just some heartburn.

  • Posted by: flmike - Jan. 18, 2007 9:00 PM ET USA

    Sorry, Diogenes, Paul is not fragile but is amazingly resilient given the hell he went through. Also, in the film he is well-spoken. The film too is well done because it so vividly reveals the hurt and anger. I have no love for PBS but I think this film is a good thing and is just one more instance of much needed pruning and cleaning.

  • Posted by: Lee Podles - Jan. 18, 2007 5:06 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately men like McCormack (and Mahoney)climb the episcopal ladder because they are doing what Rome wants them to do: preserve the facade of the Church, keep most of the faithful happy and donating, keep the money flowing to fund Catholic institutions. This is what the popes expect bishops to do, and this is what McCormack has done. Zeal for souls makes a man upset people, gets bad PR, and worst of all disrupts the flow of money. As in the Middle Ages, Lady Mead rules the Church.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 18, 2007 4:57 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Uncle Di, for your fine exposition, which has spared me from what would undoubtedly be the wrath I would feel were I to watch this film, worthy as it is. Your description is wrenching enough.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Jan. 18, 2007 3:02 PM ET USA

    Amen, Diogenes, AveMaria & Pseudodionysius. At one point, Bp. McCormack literally turned his back on Cultrera's brother, calling him a sad, sad man. My priestly heart was saddened to see a bishop act in this way. A bishop, & every priest, is to have the heart of the Shepherd, to be in persona Christi capitas, 24-7. As a priest, I pray for Bp. McCormack's conversion, & for a priest or bishop in the Boston area to reach out to the Cultrera family, with the love & compassion of Jesus Christ.

  • Posted by: Fatimabeliever - Jan. 18, 2007 2:30 PM ET USA

    When will good Catholics and Christian wake up and realize the answers to all these problems has been given by the Blessed Virgin Mary especially at Fatima: "PRAY THE ROSARY EVERYDAY." And when good people insist that their Parish priest say it along with them after Mass, watch and learn what good comes out of that Parish!!! The same for all Christian Ministers to take time out to say it, THE ROSARY, with their congregrations.

  • Posted by: Barb Kralis - Jan. 18, 2007 2:18 PM ET USA

    Had Paul & Joe omitted from film their contempt for the Church & all it stands for,their hate for the Sacraments,the priesthood,if they just focused on the crime of the abuse & cover-up,it would have been a more effective film. PBS was very happy to get their hands on another attack against the whole Church. Sadly Paul decided to involve his very elderly parents into this battle 40 years late.We all feel this repulsiveness towards evil clergy, but we don't hate the Church and its Sacraments.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 18, 2007 2:10 PM ET USA

    I can only hope and pray that Cultrera either meets someone of Diogenes' priestly caliber in real life, or manages to read this post. In a pantheon of blogging posts, this stands out as one of your best, Diogenes. expertus metuit.