Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

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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