Boys of St. Vincent

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Traitors to God

Aug 14, 2005 (Updated Jan 3, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:Incisive, dispassionate tone adds weight to a powerful message; fine performances; well-conceived visuals and sound

Cons:Difficult subject matter

The Bottom Line: This is the finest film ever made about the issue of clerical abuse of children. It is also among the best films in any category to come out of Canada.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

This week, I will be reviewing six very good films from Canada, starting here with one that I've seen cited, more than once, as the greatest Canadian film ever made. I'll withhold judgment on that point, but I'm already prepared to call this film the greatest ever made on the topic of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen. This film is a powerful psychological study that avoids polemics, sensationalism, or black-white perspectives. The film began life as a two-episode mini-series, first shown on Canadian television in 1991. After its first showing, it faced a vigorous campaign of censorship by the Catholic Church. It wasn't aired in the United States until 1993 and, even then, in a highly censored version. Now you can see the film as intended on DVD.

Historical Background: The events depicted in this film are fictional, though they were inspired by a real-life case involving the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, operated by the Christian Brothers clerical order. Injunctions against the airing of the film were enacted during the course of the trial against the Christian Brothers.

According to the John Jay study, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, covering the years 1950-2002, approximately 4,450 Catholic clergymen in the U.S. were accused of molesting minors, based on some 11,000 individuals claims. The police investigated only 615 (14%) of those cases, leading to 217 priests being charged and 138 convicted. During that time period, the Catholic Church spent $572 million in settling lawsuits and for treatment programs for the offending priests (that doesn't include the $85 million settlement against the Archdiocese of Boston, which occurred after 2002).

Eighty-one percent of the victims were boys and nineteen percent girls, which contrasts sharply with the overall rate of sexual abuse in the United States by gender (which is about four times higher for female children than male children). Although a Vatican document from 1961 bars persons of homosexual orientation from ordination and religious vows, the stipulation was never implemented. Estimates as to the percentage of Catholic clergy who are gay range from 15-50%, but something in the order of 30% seems most credible. That number depends in part on how one defines being gay. Is a fully celibate man who is attracted to other men gay? Is an otherwise heterosexual individual who engages in same-sex activity only when in a single-sex environment (e.g., prison, boarding school, an orphanage) gay? Or bisexual? The most likely explanation for the statistical disparity, in my opinion, is that sexual abuse is partly a crime of opportunity. Clergy are far more often in contact with boys than girls since nuns typically operate boarding schools and orphanages for girls. Moreover, some of the perpetrators may be primarily heterosexual but "settling for" an available victim. Whatever the reason for the statistical anomaly, the problem of sexual abuse by the clergy needs to be recognized as pedophilia, irrespective of gender, rather than a question of sexual orientation.

The Story: It is bedtime when little ten-year-old Kevin Reevey (Johnny Morina) is summoned to the office of Brother Peter Lavin (Henry Czerny), who runs St. Vincent's orphanage for boys. Sadly enough, he and the other boys know all too well what's in store for Kevin when he gets there. Kevin is Lavin's "special boy," meaning his object of sexual abuse, ranging from caressing to fondling and sodomy. Within the cloistered walls of the orphanage, the authority of the All Saints Brothers is absolute, so Kevin and the other boys have little recourse. In comparison, the strictness and severity of the daily routine, with rapped knuckles, palm beatings, and threats of eternal damnation, are minor irritations.

A few days later, when Kevin is again summoned to Lavin's office from play, he opts to run away instead. He is soon apprehended by the police and escorted back to the orphanage and into the waiting arms of Brother Lavin, who complains to the police about these orphan boys having "an insatiable need for attention." As soon as the police have departed, Lavin takes Kevin onto his lap, unbuttons the boy's shirt, and begins to kiss his face and neck, telling the boy that he's his mother. Kevin bravely insists, "My mother's dead and always will be. You're not my mother!" Lavin becomes incensed and beats Kevin black-and-blue, lashing him with the buckle of his belt.

Brother Glackin (Greg Thomey) and Brother Glynn (Alain Goulem) also have their "special boys." One of the boys thus victimized is little Steven Lunny (Brian Dodd). His fifteen-year-old brother, Brian (Ashley Billard), tries to protect Steven, but Brian just gets beaten for his effort.

One man at the orphanage who treats the boys kindly is the janitor, Mike Finn (Philip Dinn). He discovers Kevin bedridden from his beating. He goes to Lavin, imagining that Kevin must have been beaten by one of the older boys, urging the headmaster to have Kevin taken to the hospital. When Lavin refuses, Finn wraps the boy up and delivers him to the hospital on his own initiative. Soon, however, Kevin is returned to the orphanage and Finn is fired.

Finn is not through yet, however. He goes to the Department of Social Services, which has the legal responsibility for the boys. The social worker assigned to the boys of St. Vincent acknowledges that there have been rumors of abuse for years but she herself has never been allowed in the orphanage because Lavin finds such visits "disruptive." The Department's director handles all complaints in relation to the orphanage (i.e., sweeps them under the rug).

Finn next takes the issue to Detective Noseworthy (Brian Dooley) in the police department. Noseworthy investigates and gathers statements from several boys that are highly incriminating to Lavin, Glackin, and Glynn. Still, the boys are remanded to the orphanage, where they receive a stern lecture about their "betrayal of God" and how they "will be forced out on the street" with "nowhere to go but the gutter." Later, Noseworthy's superior orders him to drop the matter and "clean up" the report, deleting the references to sexual abuse. The captain has his orders from the Justice Department. The orphanage is due for a million dollar grant for a facelift and nothing must get in the way, least of all a scandal. Later, Lavin and some of the others are reassigned for a "rest" and another group of monks are brought in, but their ideas are pretty much the same. The abuse is unabated.

Part 2 of this two-part film picks up fifteen years later. The Canadian government has finally got around to pressing charges. Peter Lavin has left the clergy and is now happily married and a respected businessman, living in Montreal, with a wife and two sons. He is extradited to St. John's to stand trial. Kevin (now played by Sebastian Spence) and Steven (David Hewlett) are each now twenty-five years old and are called to testify. Brian (Timothy Webber) is now thirty. Kevin is working successfully as a house-builder, but still suffers nightmares and struggles in his relationship with his girlfriend, Shielah (Kristine Demers). Steven is far more damaged. He's become a drug addict and a male prostitute. He became a sex offender himself, when he was fifteen, forcing younger boys of seven or eight to perform oral sex. We are thus reminded that victims of abuse often display a wide variety of lifelong problems, some of which bring them into conflict with the law.

As the trial proceeds, there are simultaneous hearings relating to the cover-up. The hearings yield such responses as "I had no knowledge," "my memory of that time period has not been good since my prostate operation," "we didn't know then what we know now," and "I was only following instructions."

In the courtroom, Steven is torn to pieces on the witness stand and later commits suicide. His abuser is nevertheless convicted. Kevin resists testifying because of the horror and humiliation associated with the memories, but Shielah provides the needed support and encouragement. Once he commits to testifying, he proves to be a devastating witness for the prosecution.

The film brilliantly explores the psyche of Lavin, using his sessions with a court appointed psychiatrist (Pierre Gauthier) as well as his relationship with his wife, Chantal (Lise Roy), to illuminate his demons. It turns out that Lavin also grew up in foster homes and an orphanage and was probably himself abused as a boy. Chantal initially stands by her husband – until she hears first-hand Kevin's testimony on the witness stand.

Themes: Every reviewer of this film voices profound indignation that such terrible events happen. Sexual abuse is awful, all the more so when enacted on children, and still more so when perpetrated by supposed representatives of God. Reviewers then routinely dismiss Brother Lavin and his fellow perpetrators with such nouns as perverts, psychotics, or monsters or adjectives like twisted or diabolical. The problem with that kind of response to this film is that it overlooks an obvious reality. One or a few isolated instances of a phenomenon is an anomaly, but 4450 instances indicates a pattern. Every scientist understands that principle. It is not enough to deal harshly with the individual perpetrators of pedophilia within the church. One needs to ask what it is about the nature of the Catholic Church that has caused such a recurrent pattern to emerge. In my opinion, some of the characteristics of Catholic doctrine and practices contribute to a climate that fosters episodes of sexual abuse.

One such factor is the high degree of authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, which derives from its hierarchal structure. Authority leads to control and control leads to abuse and exploitation. The boys of St. Vincent had no recourse. Neither the legal authorities nor the social service agencies were prepared to challenge the authority of the Catholic Church within the confines of the orphanage. The authoritarianism of the Catholic Church is also a factor in its ability to cover up transgressions that would taint the Church's image.

A second aspect of Catholicism that increases risk of abuse is the concept of absolution through confession and faith. The prospect of either salvation or damnation is the chief incentive that all religions offer to their adherents, but the various religions differ in how much those prospects depend on (1) adherence to the faith vs. (2) the morality of one's behavior. It is only the second of those factors that serves the interest of human societies. The first factor serves only the interests of the religious organization in question. By claiming that salvation is only possible through one particular faith, a religion optimizes its recruitment and retention efforts, but diminishes the relative importance of moral action. Catholicism places relatively more emphasis on adherence to the faith and relatively less emphasis on moral behavior than most religions. This point is emphasized in Boys of St. Vincent through the frequent references to "forgiveness for one's sins." One might expect that clergymen would have more reason to fear the consequences of their sinful behavior than nonreligious people do, having to anticipate the judgment of God as well as legal ramifications. The statistics suggest, however, that too many clergymen have less than typical concern with the consequences of their behavior. Apparently, too many clergymen are operating on the assumption that they will be forgiven for their sins because of their faith or through confession.

A third aspect of Catholicism that contributes to an abusive environment, in my opinion, is the celibacy of the priesthood. By denying priests natural forms of sexual release, the Church elevates the risk that sexual frustration will emerge in perverse forms. A fourth issue is the Catholic fixation with suffering, beginning with the image of the Crucifix. That fixation has emerged through the centuries in such forms as penitence, inquisitions, flagellations, burnings at the stake, and sexual abuse. The Catholic Church cannot face up to the doctrinal contributions to the problem of sexual abuse by the clergy, since such reevaluation would draw into question the Church's infallibility. They are therefore reduced to scape-goating homosexuals among the clergy.

There are other interesting themes addressed in this film as well, such as how sexual abuse tends to cycle from one generation to another. Both Brother Lavin and Steven Lunny were abused as young children and later became abusers. Kevin was also badly damaged by the abuse he experienced though he did not himself become an abuser. It is interesting that reviewers tend to take a compassionate view of Steven's transgression, having observed his history, but experience no such compassion in relation to Lavin, whose history as a child is only hinted at. Obviously, a society cannot allow a history of abuse to become an excuse for abusive behavior, but it needs to be viewed as a mitigating circumstance during sentencing. Still another interesting theme is the responsibility of family members in relation to perpetrators of heinous crimes. My personal view is that family members should leave the punishment of criminals, including those who are their relatives, to the legal system and let their own relationship to the criminal remain that of supportive family member (short of aiding or abetting the crime or evasion of responsibility for it).

Production Values: The Boys of St. Vincent was directed by John N. Smith, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Sam Grana and Des Walsh. They have operated on the principal that less is more. By avoiding histrionics, they have given the presentation of this difficult material a documentary-like credibility. This film invites viewers to think intelligently about the problem of priests abusing children, rather than simply emoting about it. That some viewers still end up responding only with outrage is not the fault of the filmmakers. They did their level best to open up potential for dispassionate analysis of the factors contributing to clerical pedophilia and what could be done to suppress it.

The cinematography for this film is very well matched to its subject matter. The orphanage has something of the aura of a haunted castle, as if taken from a horror film, which is, in a sense, the kind of film this is. The clergy appear as shadowy figures. The dormitory rooms and clerical offices are photographed in dingy grays and browns but the more public spaces in brighter golden hues, signifying safety. Many of the tense scenes are accompanied by Gregorian Chant, to emphasize the terrible inconsistency between the holy pretensions of the clergy and this abominable abuse of the children. There are several instances of quick cuts between scenes of abuse and a looming statue of a bleeding Jesus.

The performance by Henry Czerny as Brother Lavin is terrifyingly credible. Czerny fully expresses both the inhuman and human qualities of his character, denying viewers the easy out of picturing the man as unlike ourselves, reminding us that some 4500 clergy accused of abuse of children cannot be written off as a few freaks. The problem is systemic. Czerny went on to roles in such films as Clear and Present Danger (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), and The Ice Storm (1997). There are also many fine supporting performances by the children and other adult actors.

Bottom-Line: I personally know a man who was a victim of sexual abuse when he was a boy. I give nothing away by saying so because he has written a book about his experiences by way of "testifying" to it. He is one of the most sensitive and compassionate people I've ever met and it's to his great credit that he has dealt well enough with a traumatic childhood to become a valued and respected member of a community. It's not an adequate response on the part of society merely to deal harshly with perpetrators of such crimes. The emphasis needs to be on prevention, especially since the legal process required to convict perpetrators often brings further trauma to the victims. Prevention will require calm reflection about the circumstances that create an environment in which abuse becomes more likely.

You might want to check out these other excellent films from Canada:

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The Barbarian Invasions
The Decline of the American Empire
The Fast Runner
Felicia's Journey
The Hanging Garden
The Sweet Hereafter

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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