The Movie Calvary and What It Tells Us About Sexual Abuse

calvaryThe movie Calvary, recently opened in theaters across the country, is set in the rural Irish countryside. The main character is an Irish priest who discovered his vocation after his wife died. Father James Lavelle (played by Brendan Gleeson) serves the small Irish community along with an inept younger assistant named Father Leary.

The villagers attend mass, take communion, but live their lives as they see fit, strangely removed from the teachings of the church. Simon, an African émigré, is involved in an affair with a married woman whose husband doesn’t care that she is cheating on him. Another character in the movie is known as the Writer who asks Father James for a gun so he can end his life.

The movie opens with a confessional scene in which Father James hears the confession of an adult man who tells the priest that he’d been sexually abused by another priest since he was seven years old. When Father James asks him if he’d like to report the priest to the authorities, the penitent responds by telling him that the priest is dead and will take his revenge on a good priest. He plans to kill Father James in a week on the beach. This is the opening scene of the movie which recalls the last week of the priest’s life on earth.

In all of his interactions with the townspeople, Father James encounters an underlying cynicism about faith, religion, and most especially the Catholic Church. Father James is a good man who has battled alcohol problems, his wife’s untimely death, and the addiction issues of his daughter. It’s clear that no one in the town has much respect for the authority of the church. It’s intimated throughout the film that the priest abuse scandal has left this tiny little town with little else but scorn for the church and her ministers.

In several scenes in which Father James discusses the death threat with the bishop, the bishop is only concerned with the legalities of reporting the death threat to the police. There is no expressed concern for the victim or sorrow for the abuse.

It is only in the next to last scene where the identity of the sexual abuse victim is revealed. He meets Father James on the beach intending to kill the priest. In their brief dialogue Father James tells the man that he doesn’t have to do this. Yet, the abuse victim is overwrought with suffering and grief stemming from the abuse that he can’t see another way.

Calvary dramatically depicts the suffering and horror of sexual abuse. It also shows the callous disregard the church demonstrated toward abuse victims, especially in Ireland. This is not a “warm and fuzzy” movie intended to make you feel good. The abuse victim does not heal, unable to confront or overcome the demons that have haunted him since childhood.

As an attorney who has worked with numerous sexual abuse survivors, I recognize the pain, confusion and suffering of the abuse victim in this movie. His church does nothing to help him overcome the abuse or confront the trauma of the past.

The movie demonstrates quite effectively that there are collateral victims in any abuse situation. The townspeople are also victimized by the behavior of the church. They’ve lost their faith and have become cynical about institutions, relationships, and life itself.

There is no healing or redemption in this movie. The suffering continues because no one confronts anyone on their behavior. The wife continues to cheat on her husband. The African émigré continues to abuse the woman because the abuse is kept secret and hidden. Even the local police constable is compromised by his seedy lifestyle. Secrets and sins are kept in the dark. Everyone suffers and remains in their own hell. Their only solace is alcohol.

Calvary tells the story of sexual abuse and its horrific consequences quite well. The movie is a sobering view of life when no one has the courage to expose sexual abuse for what it is.

In our own communities where the sexual abuse of a child has taken place, the damage can spread throughout the community like a cancer. Healing only occurs when that cancer is removed – when all the facts are made known about how the abuse happened and the aftermath, no matter how long ago. Healing and redemption can and does take place after sexual abuse. However, it only happens when victims become survivors and tell their stories, holding those responsible accountable for their actions.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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