Mea Maxima Culpa: Voices Unheard, 8
The Boys of St. Vincent
St. Vincent is a very different kind of documentary when compared to Mea Maxima. It is, in fact, a docudrama. Where the latter collects interviews with the boys and their family, the investigators, and the Church and secular authorities, set against beautifully chosen music and scenes of nature, the former reenacts a synopsis of the events surrounding Mt. Cashel. Characters are renamed, occurrences are summarized or fused. One boy is chosen as a Christ figure to represent the sins against all the boys.
I stubbed my mind’s toe on this film when I first encountered it as blasts of the German music band, Enigma, shrouded all dialogue. Although Enigma’s characteristic layering of electronica over Gregorian chant might make intellectual sense in the context, it was so incongruous with the polished wood of the orphanage and vicious beatings of the boys; so artistically out of tune with the varied yet continual abuse of the boys and footsteps crunching on the snow, that I couldn’t figure out how on earth the director could have thought this was a good idea. He hadn’t. Some Dutch “auteur” had leveled this atrocity on a decent film. A bad idea. Eventually, I found the original version; it had Portuguese subtitles.
The episodes in this film are both true and not true, in the way that fiction can be both true but not true. The emotions they elicit as ten-year-old Kevin (probably a depiction of Shane Earle), played with unforgettable pathos by Johnny Morina, stares blankly while his Christian Brother teacher rapes him; as the janitor stares in horror at bestial wounds on boys of all ages, one beaten with the buckle of a thick leather belt because he called out for his dead mother when the Superintendent fondled him, another with hands “turned to hamburger” by a similar belt as punishment for the “disrespect” of objecting to his younger brother’s abuse; as the authorities of Church and State twinkle with self-satisfaction while they quaff drinks celebrating 100 years of CB activity in Newfoundland, all knowing something is wrong, but willing to sacrifice the boys with no compunction whatsoever in order to salvage reputations of sociopaths, cowards, and apparatchiks; these fictional emotions are real as the facts Michael Harris relates in his book.
But although Henry Czerny, the actor portraying Brother Peter Lavin (probably the film version of Brother Kenny) has been richly rewarded (and deservedly so) in prizes for his fierce portrayal as a crazed and arrogant fiend whose ungovernable passions of lust and rage would be obvious to the most casual observer, the most effective scripting moments come in the character Brother Glackin (Greg Thomey), a gormless overgrown sheepdog of a man more menacing than the overtly troubled Lavin. The casting is excellent throughout, but the script went awry.
Perhaps it was the attempt to cram a profoundly complex, multiyear saga into three hours of television viewing. The fourteen-year-long delay in finally getting real hearings was never clear. The obstruction of the Church only hinted at, while those who stepped in to stop the abuse were as disproportionately present in the film as they were absent in reality. The constant evasion of government officials nearly disappeared all together. The vile pattern of assignments and reassignments of pedophile priests was missing pretty much in its entirety.
And although elegant in use of light and dark with the starkness of the dormitories countering the chaotic, yet comfortable clutter of the orphanage cellar from which Mike Finn, the kindly, somewhat uncouth caretaker risked his livelihood to try to save the children, there are times when the camera pans along the naked body of the boys in their showers so long that it seems more lascivious than otherwise. The director may have been trying to show how the CBs visually groped the boys, but the disconnect undermined the message especially when it occurred more than once.
But wait a minute. Didn’t I just say they squeezed this story into three hours? I don’t remember watching more than 1 1/2 hours. As it turns out, I’d only watched Part 1. The followup was the same story “fifteen years later.” Like the first part, it began with an extended apologia of white letters oddly centered on a matte black screen:
The following dramatic presentation
is a work of fiction. It has been inspired
by recent events in Newfoundland
and elsewhere in Canada but it is not
a re-enactment of any actual events.
The characters, scenes, and dialogue in
this drama are not intended to represent
the actual personalities, actions, or words
of any real people, living or dead.
Sepia snapshots show children and the Brothers, the ocean, then a comfy young Montreal family at home in the kitchen with two little boys drawing and doing homework at the table, their parents at the sink. The charming maman watches as papa is rinsing a chicken. Papa turns to her and we see Peter Lavin. It is both natural and shocking, some of director John N. Smith’s and his fellow writers’ finest work in the film. Just a natural family setting with a predator in their midst. The police come to the door to arrest him and take him back to St. John’s Newfoundland, an act he considers “ridiculous.” They read the charges in front of his little family that has reentered the ecclesiastical hallway: “You might want to pack some things.”
The Hitchcockian music is a bit obtrusive; too much like endless Psycho knockoffs to support the scene. As his wife tries to get some explanation for this outrage, her husband’s rage spews all over her startled, but unsurprised, countenance. What is so “right” about this set of scenes is Czerny’s convincing anger that this is happening, while at the same time, maintaining his secure belief that it won’t lead to anything, like something you might see at a red state rally, but no rants or ravings. It’s all in the glare from his widening grey eyes and the slight stoic raise of his chin. Masterful in its subtlety.
In the musings of the now older Kevin, the music of the church anthem from Part 1 eases into the background. This is an effective leitmotif much as Wagner might have used — past as prelude to the present, an ever-present threat. Lavin’s wife alternates pained glances at the TV coverage of her husband’s plight, and at the happy family photographs on the mantle. Her sons look much like Kevin.
One very effective piece of telescoping is in Lavin’s trial. Det. Noseworthy (where do they get these names? Is this a morality play kind of thing?) blurts out the instructions he received, forcing him to “doctor” evidence, removing all references to sexual abuse, along with his sense that the instructions came jointly from the Justice Dept. and Church hierarchy. In this one brief brush stroke, the director paints a clear portrait of church and state complicity.
I relished the part where the preternaturally calm investigating commission questioner asked the head of Social Services to confirm the fact that as legal guardian of the children, he had indeed asked one of the Brothers to investigate a crime the brother may have himself committed. The SS head burst out aggrievedly, “It may seem like that in retrospect.”
Oh my Lord! In retrospect? It might seem like that? It was like that. This is so true. The commission attorney, played with marvelous minimalist subtlety by Sheena Larkin, regards him for a moment before looking down and scribbling some notes. Her ever-so-slight “un huh,” “I see,” “you must be kidding” facial moues at men called “lying bastards” by the boys at the trial are absolutely priceless.
Two other important commission witnesses can’t remember anything. One, the head of the police department, says a prostate operation caused memory loss focused precisely on the period in which he told Noseworthy to delete the sex references in his report. The gallery chuckles and the questioners seem briefly nonplussed.
Okay, I admit it, I was skeptical, too. Prostate surgery leading to memory loss? Aren’t we talking about different sections of the body? So, with a determination to be fair, with fleeting memories of “the knee bone connected to the thigh bone” and in homage to Montaigne, father of the essay, my mind wandered to a medical report based on information from the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Turns out there are some reports of memory loss related to prostate issues, but they are all anecdotal and seem related to the hormone-depletion therapy that sometimes follows the surgery, rather than the surgery itself. More importantly, the reports all describe the loss as short-term. Six months to a year, max. But let’s return to the trial.
The monsignor acts as if he’s not quite sure why he’s there. Yes, he knew there were abuses, but no, he didn’t take any action. It might have been “embarrassing” for the boys. And what about Brother Lavin?, the commissioner added. “What about him?,” the Monsignor queries as if no priest had been charged with a crime in this case. He only remembered speaking to someone in the Justice Dept. who had died five years prior to the current hearings. Un-freaking-believable. But so true to the reality of the original situation.
Throughout Part 2, the scene shifts back to a morning radio call-in show broadcast in St. John’s. The hefty, baseball-capped, raspy-voiced, no-nonsense host, Lenora Pardy, played by Mary Walsh who has the verbal smirk down to a science.
“Well, it does seem unbelievable, doesn’t it callers,” she opines in laid-back disbelief, “that a man who willfully let child molesters go free, a man who by his own admission is suffering from severe brain damage, was once the man who ran the police department in this town. Here he is, he claims to have had an operation and now,” her voice farcically quavers, “he can’t remember a thing.”
The Minister of Justice just said “I was never informed” in the face of the fact that it was his very office that had shut down the original investigation. The scriptwriters got it right here.
As Lavin returns to a supportive loving family, Kevin viciously attacks a former dorm-mate back from Texas to testify, and breaks up with his girlfriend, a primary school teacher, when she identifies him as a St. Vincent’s boy. When they reconnect, he wakes up gasping and choking in the night. She tries to comfort him: “It’s just a dream.” But no, it’s worse, I say, in what’s called blackground*, it’s a memory.
(*interactive talking aloud back to the movie or TV screen, a practice common in many African American communities)
Lavin tells the therapist hired by his lawyer to try to deny his perversion, referring instead to his own life as an orphan who grew up “hard” in order not to be “soft” like other boys.
In one effective scene, he’s at the grocery store and picks up a neighborhood boy whose leg is hurting from a fight. As he drives the boy home, my stomach tightens up and I feel sick. Nothing is happening. A man is simply driving a boy home because he is injured. I nearly threw up. It was the perfect moment of suspense and anxiety, but the director couldn’t leave well enough alone. He couldn’t trust the moment, so he doubled back to naked shower scenes.
Earlier Lavin seems to break down before his wife’s questioning, but is it self-serving as he sobs, puts his head in her lap, and cuts her off with sex when, still believing that he is innocent, she asks if he knew what was going on at St. Vincent’s while he was superintendent.