The central figure in Deliver Us From Evil, Amy Berg’s brilliant and psychologically transfixing documentary about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church, is Father Oliver O’Grady, a convicted pedophile who served seven years in jail and now roams free in his native Ireland — a 60ish chap speaking with soft candor about his crimes. With a flash of a smile and a voice of musical Irish eloquence, ”Father Ollie” has a flowing charm; at first, there’s something almost reassuring about him. As he speaks of his desires for young girls and boys, his tone is steady, abashed, sincere, remorseful. For all the headline disclosures of recent years, the scandal of sexually abusive priests — the deeper personal truth of it — remains shrouded in veils of secrecy and shame, and so one is relieved to see a man like O’Grady, who appears to want to own up to what he did.
Yet the more you listen to him, and the more you hear testimony about his behavior (his victims were as young as nine months), it becomes clear that he’s a born manipulator who is playing the audience, using the drama of his confession to defuse and soft-pedal his crimes. Berg, a former producer for CBS and CNN, interviews several of O’Grady’s victims, whom he molested in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and they offer some of the most intimate and lacerating testimony to the horror of child sexual abuse that I have ever heard. Their stories, which detail the seduction of whole families, the ”affection” and violation that O’Grady got away with by preying on their reverence and trust, convey how these children had fissures ripped in their souls — wounds that will likely never heal. ”People gotta understand,” moans Bob Jyono, a parent of one of the abuse survivors. ”He’s not a pedophile, he’s a rapist.”
Layer by layer, Berg uncovers how Father Ollie rooted his monstrous serial abuse in the sanctimony he enjoyed as a priest. As the dispenser of the Eucharist, he was a literal link to Christ, and the film makes the startling point that within the priesthood, since any sexual act is regarded as a sin, a sin of child abuse can be confessed away, can be forgiven, as surely as any other. The brilliance of Deliver Us From Evil — what makes the film a revelation and not just a rehash of headlines — is the way that Berg portrays a kind of terrifying psychological chain, linking the abuse, the obscene entitlement experienced by a man like O’Grady, and the squirmy arrogance of the Catholic authorities who, in effect, hid his crimes, giving allowance to child rape because they believed their mission to be above sin.
That’s certainly the sense we get from the taped depositions of church leaders, who speak in sweaty bureaucratic Nixonian murmurs. Chief among them is Cardinal Roger Mahony, who as a bishop bumped O’Grady from one California parish to the next, generally 50 miles away from the last. The reason? The movie forcefully argues that any hint of scandal in Mahony’s diocese would have impeded his rise in the church. (Mahony and the church have denied these allegations.) Deliver Us From Evil shows us how the business of saving souls can rationalize the obscenity of selling them.