I recently watched Amy Berg’s 2006 documentary focusing on former-Fr. Oliver O’Grady, one of the most notorious of sexual abusers. It has serious flaws: like many contemporary documentaries, it presents points of view or conclusions as though they were fact. In this instance, there are logical leaps I’m not willing to take, and some misconceptions about how sex abuse cases were handled (and by what rules) at various points in time.
In spite of these flaws, the film is well worth watching – but be prepared to be disturbed. Oliver O’Grady was amazingly open with interviewer Amy Berg. In one section of the interview, he describes being asked by a psychologist about whether he is aroused – and even then, having been ousted from the priesthood and after a jail term, he cannot control his excitement – and its expression – at just the thought of a scantily clad child. It was a flash of insight into the mind of a true child predator – and it was chilling.
It was equally disturbing to see the anguish of the parents – whose interviews take up more time in the film – and his victims. The amount of trust placed in O’Grady, not because he was friendly and likable (although he was, with his parishioners), but on the basis of his priesthood is mind-boggling to someone like me who was not raised in the Church. Being a priest did not make him into a child-molester (that is grounded in his own childhood history), but it provided him access to children in their homes and informal settings that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
O’Grady’s offenses began in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. It’s important to remember how much our knowledge and understanding of all child abuse changed in just one generation. Battered-Child Syndrome was first identified in 1962, and the first law preventing the abuse of children was passed in 1974. Not until 1994, following the rape and murder of Megan Kanka, were laws written requiring the development of sex offender registries. Nonetheless, after the passage of these laws, with their strict mandatory sex abuse reporting requirements for some professionals – but not clergy – the practice of shifting a priest from place to place becomes increasingly hard to understand.
Which is the third disturbing aspect of the film: the clips from the legal depositions of Cardinal Roger Mahoney and others who had been responsible for the transfers. For the most part, each person reports that he didn’t really know the full picture, or about previous complaints. At the very least, that level of “not knowing” makes it clear that they did not have any understanding of the utterly devastating consequences of these instances of abuse on their victims.
The last part of the movie focuses on the efforts of some of O’Grady’s victims to get Rome to acknowledge that he shouldn’t have been left in parish work – but also on O’Grady’s current life in Ireland. When the film aired in the Netherlands, many people recognized O’Grady as someone who had been passing himself off as a deacon and working with children. It is utterly clear that none of our current systems of protection – legal, church, and the awareness of parents – are a match for the wiles and drive of a true pedophile. And that is the most disturbing part of all.