New York — “I did what I did out of love for the church. I don’t have an axe to grind against the church,” said self-described whistleblower Fr. Ron Lemmert. “… Our bad shepherds have done terrible deeds that have caused the sheep to scatter and now we’re reaping the results.”
The New York archdiocesan priest is an inspiration for “A Matter of Conscience: Confronting Clergy Abuse,” a new documentary about Catholic priests and women religious who confronted clergy sexual abuse. Lemmert joined the co-producers of the film in a panel discussion Thursday following a screening at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in Manhattan.
The film, co-produced by Susan A. Michalczyk and John J. Michalczyk, examines the whistleblowers’ motives, actions and the considerable repercussions they experienced for speaking out against abuse. The couple, both professors at Boston College, made the film as a sequel to “Who Takes Away the Sins: Witnesses to Clergy Abuse,” a 2013 documentary compiled from interviews with survivors and advocates.
“You can’t be a bystander. You can’t look the other way. You can and must take a stand,” Susan Michalczyk said.
The Michalczyks made the film because, “our bottom line is to educate and heal. People think [the abuse and cover-ups] are yesterday’s news, it’s all over and done and there are no problems anymore,” Susan said. Storytelling allows survivors, advocates and whistleblowers to “stand in solidarity” and support one another.
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Speakers in the film, some of whom are also survivors of clergy sexual abuse, described a trajectory in their advocacy: They learned about and were horrified by instances of abuse of children; reported the abusers to people in authority in the church and were assured the matter would be addressed; were appalled that the abusers were protected and not punished; and began an often-lonely crusade to shed light on the ongoing situation, to hold abusers and church leaders accountable and to minister to survivors.
When a single mother of two young men told Dominican Sr. Sally Butler her sons were both abused as children by three parish priests, Butler said she felt horrible and couldn’t believe it, but also knew it was true.
“I kept thinking that all I had to do was let this be known and the bishop would act immediately,” she said in the film.
Instead, chancery officials who already knew of other allegations about the priests quizzed her about “dates and times” to see if the statute of limitation on prosecution had expired. “So that was my introduction to what was going to be a pattern of behavior on the part of the institutional church,” Butler said.
As a high school teacher in 1981, former brother and priest Robert Hoatson reported abuse of students by a popular “legendary” priest at the school. The headmaster dismissed Hoatson. The whistleblower said he apologized to two of the former students 30 years later when they spoke publically about the abuse. He also formed Road to Recovery, an aid and advocacy organization for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Interviewees in the film described being shunned by colleagues and passed over for opportunities. Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle said, “I lost all my friends in the clergy, just about, except for one or two. I was a prominent member of the Canon Law Society. Gone. At one point they had a motion to kick me out of it, and I told them, I said, ‘I beat you to it. I quit.’ ”
Lemmert, chaplain at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., said the film grew out of the concerns of Catholic Whistleblowers, a network of current and former priests, women religious, brothers, deacons and laypeople who actively support survivors of sexual abuse and struggle to expose its cover-up by church leadership. When Lemmert identified himself as a whistleblower to BishopAccountability.org, that organization’s co-director, Anne Barrett Doyle, put him in touch with other people in the church who had been fired, marginalized, criticized or demeaned for speaking out.
Those participating in the panel discussion said the clergy sexual abuse and cover-up issue will not be resolved without significant changes in the church.
“The people who have the power run the church and lay people and groups won’t get anything done until power is shared,” Hoatson said. “The structure that created this mess is still in place.”
Susan Michalczyk said of the church leadership, “They don’t have to believe. They don’t have to have a conscience; they have to stop pretending it’s not their problem.”
“All of the people you see in this film took major hits,” she said. “How do you reconcile the beliefs of people who remain in the church, and their willingness to participate and stay to fight the fight, with the tremendous harm and repercussions?”
The film has power, believability and strength because the people depicted who chose to stay in religious life and those who left continue to speak and advocate, “not out of malice or revenge but really for issues of integrity. That speaks volumes against all the hypocrisy we’ve seen in the traditional religious response,” Susan said.
According to John Michalczyk, the PBS series “Frontline” is considering the film for potential broadcast. It is also being shown at meetings of Voice of the Faithful and is available for purchase at etoileproductionsusa.com.
[Beth Griffin is a freelance journalist based in New York.]