SINEAD O’SHEA’s Pray for Our Sinners (no BBFC certification), now in cinemas, rekindles, among other things, debates about the relative merits of documentary- and feature-film versions of truth. It’s another movie examining clerical abuse of children. Does the fact-finding Mea Maxima Culpa (Arts, 15 February 2012), for example, outweigh the dramatisation of similar material in Spotlight (Arts, 29 January 2016)?
Truth is a slippery customer, and Pray for Our Sinners probes what generally passes for reality. Its protagonists are vividly drawn via flashbacks as well as present-day occurrences. Undercurrents of suspicion and suspense emerge as the story evolves, reaching a climax with an unforeseeable denouement. What could be a surprise is that (spoiler alert!) this is a documentary.
O’Shea, previously known for the powerful A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot, doesn’t simply bemoan or castigate the behaviour of abusive priests or nuns. Returning to Navan, Ireland, where she grew up, she interviews Mary Randles, who, with her late husband, Paddy, ran a medical practice. We learn how schoolchildren were maltreated by De La Salle Brothers teaching staff. Norman, whipped with hosepipe, almost lost an eye. Punishment for using his left hand irreparably damaged it.
The Randles campaigned to abolish corporal punishment. No Irish newspaper would publicise it; so they contacted the News of the World in the UK. Only the first of its “Children Under the Lash” articles, in May 1969, reached Navan. On the second Sunday of publication, priests awaited the delivery van, and seized and threw the papers into the river. The American NBC television network then made a programme of interviews with children attesting to the violence administered in schools. In due course, corporal punishment was outlawed in Ireland, although, it would seem, little was done to upbraid the abusers.
Just as heartbreaking are the tales of people such as Betty and Ethan, now mature women. Barely adult and pregnant, they were whisked off to (now notorious) mother-and-baby homes. They were humiliated and punished with hard labour, and their offspring went for adoption. Films such as The Magdalene Sisters (Arts, 11 January 2011) and Philomena (Arts, 1 November 2013) have dramatised some of this. It has, however, taken a documentary to show how collusive the oppression was, except for the Randles’ care of these girls. The film sensitively conveys the way in which otherwise kindly people, out of fear, ignorance, or misplaced righteousness, avoided questioning such practices.
We get glimpses of how clergy, like their flocks, were in thrall to an outmoded theocracy. Ninety-one per cent of primary schools remain church foundations. All too often, Christian formation was substituted with cultural oppression, especially of the females. O’Shea remarks: “It was dangerous for an Irish woman to be different, to lack social connections. Without them a woman could be placed in an institution for being poor, strident, or even attractive.”
The documentary also focuses on the kindly and charismatic parish priest Andrew Farrell, who was unable to deviate from the party line. Was he as much a victim of the system as everyone else? O’Shea’s documentary has a feature-film ending. Because the Randles and those they befriended remained true to their Christian roots, goodness prospers.