The Catholic Church, Priests, Pride, and Sexual Abuse in Doubt


I’m reposting my reflections on Doubt. It came to mind because of the current Penn State situation. In Doubt there is no eyewitness, only suspicion. Powerful men at Penn State – Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier, are all told by a graduate assistant, an eyewitness, that he’d seen Sandusky naked in the showers molesting a young boy. They tell the graduate assistant they’ve taken away Sandusky’s keys and reported the incident to The Second Mile, a youth charity Sandusky founded in 1977. Apparently he was caught before in 1998 and questioned by police but the district attorney did not file charges. The frightening reality is that, like Sr. James in Doubt, there is a tendency to deflect suspicion and even ignore facts, “so you can have simplicity back.”



CONTAINS SPOILERS. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Young Sr. (Sister) James, played by Amy Adams, sees some indications that the progressive young priest may have an inappropriate relationship with one of her students, an altar boy, but is reluctant to believe it. Sr. Aloysius, an austere older nun not only believes it, she seems to want to believe it.

The Catholic Church’s most recent controversy involving alleged child molestation by priests reminded me of Doubt, the 2008 movie that starred Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Set in the Bronx in the 1964, Doubt centers around the question of Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence. It also probes into how far “the benefit of the doubt” should extend, and gets into the motives behind willingness to believe or disbelieve.

When Sr. James brings her concerns to her superior Sr. Aloysius pursues the matter. She calls Father Flynn’s former parish where the priests vouch for him, but another nun also has suspicions. We never hear definite proof of guilt but we also are presented with doubt about his innocence. Like many religious people of her generation, Sr. Aloysius sees it as her calling as to ferret out and punish wrongdoing. She is willing to be severe, to be disliked, and to confront anyone she believes is doing anything remotely “wrong.” Her judgmental attitude leaves no room in her life for compassion or doubt. She relies on certainty to justify herself.

Sister James, who initially raises the question, is less certain. She is willing to entertain the possibility that Father Flynn’s behavior might be explained as “progressive” rather than “suspicious.” She is young and idealistic. In 1964 Vatican II has just happened. Progressive Catholic priests and nuns are becoming more involved with their congregations and developing less formal relationships. Many adherents welcomed this but some were rather shocked to discover that their priests and nuns were actually people too.

If we give Father Flynn the benefit of the doubt it’s reasonable to think that in the mid- 1960’s the experience of an adolescent struggling with sexual orientation issues might warrant some “private counseling.” It also follows that a priest might not want to share such a counseling session with someone as judgmental as Sr. Aloysius. Sr. James tells Sr. Aloysius that “It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God. ” Sr. Aloysius responds, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.” She believes that she is on the side of righteousness even if it means feeling separated from God.

In one of his sermons ‘What do you do when you’re not sure?’ Father Flynn says, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.” Progressive Catholicism in the 1960’s was seeking to create community within the church. Are Flynn’s gestures of affection toward the boys simply acts of love and compassion from a man who wants to reflect Christ’s love and compassion, or are they sexual overtures?

The mother of the boy involved, Mrs. Miller, is struggling with how to protect her child from previous abuse over his homosexual tendencies. She’s uncertain of the nature of Father Flynn’s relationship with her son Donald but seems willing to allow a relationship that might even be sexual if it helps her child to gain some self-esteem after horrific treatment by his father and public school bullies. When confronted by Sr. Aloysius she replies, “I don’t know if you and me are on the same side. I’ll be standing with my son and those who are good with my son. It’d be nice to see you there.”

Idealistic and innocent Sr. James seems to be both progressive and spiritual. She wants to provide love and guidance to the children she teaches. She’s trying to reconcile the disconnect between her “spiritual calling” and the attitudes of her superiors in the church who seem either too morally compromised or too severe and judgmental. She reflects the confusion and disillusionment many may be feeling toward the church in light of recent scandals.

The stark contrast between the friendly, comfortable rectory and the sparse and serious convent provides a peek into the contrasting relationships and attitudes of priests and nuns. The church, which is governed by priests rather than nuns, seems more concerned about scandal than about the molested boys. The higher ups in the church are presented as men who seem to consider the political and business concerns of the church over the spiritual. If Father Flynn is guilty of molestation then he is using a good-old-boy network of priests to protect himself.  The nuns, on the other hand, are presented as teacher-disciplinarians who are most concerned with upholding moral standards and tradition.

Doubt is a thoughtful portrayal of the attitudes and issues of the time period. In retrospect we know sexual abuse did happen among priests in the 1960’s and that it was covered up, but that wasn’t in the headlines back then. As an audience we have more information than the characters involved.

Even so it is difficult to side with cheerless, rigid Sr. Aloysius. The very fact that she has no room for doubt makes us want her to be wrong about Father Flynn. Author and director John Patrick Stanley believes that there is “always a level of doubt” in which we cannot know what’s going on inside another person. As Sr. Aloysius says to Sr. James, “You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back.”

Doubt reveals that the Catholic Church may have been blinded so much by Pride that they could never see the Lust issues clearly. This Easter 2010 Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said “Talk of sin is not always popular — unless we are talking about other people’s sins. In recent weeks the serious sins committed within the Catholic community have been much talked about.” As facts come to light the Christian community, not only Roman Catholics but others as well, will continue to face questions about sin. Traditionally the church has used lists like the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins to help define acceptable behavior. These lists are great, but are useless without honest self assessment and reflection by everyone involved.

Comments are closed.