Content Warning: sexual abuse
Last night I watched the film Doubt, a period drama based on a play by John Patrick Shanley about a charismatic priest who faces allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of the parish’s head nun. Sister Aloysius, played brilliantly by Meryl Streep, demands order in the parish and will do anything to establish this order, even if it means bopping students on the head when they sleep or talk during Father Flynn’s sermon. Father Flynn, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (an incredible performer who died of an overdose in 2014. I am still not over his death. Rest in Peace.), preaches about how, after the year President John F. Kennedy got assassinated, everyone had uncertainty about the fate of the nation, but that this shared doubt is what united everyone because before that, there was all this divisiveness among people. Father Flynn says that “doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty”.
Indeed, this film grapples heavily with the concept of doubt, specifically in the context of sexual abuse. When the parish’s first black student, Donald Miller, arrives, Father Flynn takes a liking to him and takes him as his pupil. Donald also develops a liking for Father Flynn. However, things get messy when he calls Donald to the rectory and Sister James (played by Amy Adams) finds, out of the corner of her eye while watching her students’ dance rehearsal, Father Flynn putting Donald’s white T-shirt in his locker, implying that Father Flynn molested Donald. When Sister Aloysius hears about this she immediately sets out to campaign against Father Flynn and get him kicked out of the parish. However, Father Flynn says to the two sisters that they are wrongly accusing him of wrongdoing, that no, he didn’t give Donald communion wine and no, that he didn’t have an inappropriate relationship with him. When Sister Aloysius meets with Donald’s mom (played by the always incredibly talented Viola Davis) to tell her that Father Flynn made inappropriate advances towards her son, Donald’s mom tells her that Donald is just trying to survive until he graduates and that if her husband were to find out about what Flynn did to Donald, then he would literally kill Donald.
The film is important to see not just because of the philosophical theme of doubt and truth, but also because in the #metoo era we need to recognize the experiences of male sexual abuse survivors. Terry Crews, famous actor, spoke out against sexual assault after another man groped him. Anthony Rapp held allegations against Kevin Spacey for making unwanted advances towards him when Rapp was only 14 and Spacey was in his 20s. And just recently, two men came forward with traumatic experiences of the late pop singer Michael Jackson molesting them when they were very young (I have yet to see Leaving Neverland but I can imagine it is quite terrifying considering how much I worshipped MJ as a kid like so many other people). Now of course, people have often tried to associate the entire LGBTQ community with these men, and this is another messy discussion in and of itself (in my opinion, it has really harmed people’s perceptions of the LGBTQ community when we equate a few individuals’ actions with an entire group of oppressed people. There are plenty of straight men and women who commit similar abuses). The film’s central premise is sexual abuse and, while not the main premise, the psychological toll it can take on its survivors. Donald comes back to Sister James’ class from his meeting with Flynn feeling uneasy and ashamed, implying that Flynn did in fact use his position in power to seduce Donald, who was under the age of consent, into letting him push past Donald’s personal boundaries. The film also delves into how people treat allegations of sexual abuse; the #metoo movement, while it has given many women and men the chance to voice their experiences, has also received some backlash. As someone who never survived sexual abuse, I couldn’t understand why survivors of trauma wouldn’t speak out against their perpetrators, but as I learned more about survivors’ experiences and talked with more people about it, I came to understand that people in positions of authority use intimidation in order to silence the survivors of their abuse and therefore protect their position.
What Father Flynn did, though, is no different from workplace harassment or catcalling on the street. In one scene of the film, he is talking to the parish boys about consent, and they ask him whether or not it’s ok to turn down girls to a school dance. He says it is fine for them to do so, but to also remember to respect girls if they themselves do not want to dance with you. However, this is quite ironic because he made unwanted advances towards Donald in the rectory, even though he tried covering it up by telling the sisters that Father McGuinn caught Donald drinking the communion wine and that Father Flynn was trying to protect Donald from punishment. When Father Flynn is transferred to a different church and promoted to a different position, he tries to cover up what he did with handshakes and charisma, while Donald sits quietly in the pews silently crying. We don’t know whether he is crying at the thought of Flynn leaving or whether he is crying because of what Flynn did to him, so it’s up to the viewer to understand what happened.
After watching this film, I remembered that in recent news several reports came forward about Catholic priests, living and dead, who abused children at the church for many years without suffering any kind of punishment for it. Attorney Jeff Anderson revealed in his report that 395 Catholic priests, 6 nuns and several laypeople sexually abused children in several Catholic churches around Illinois, and all but one of the abusers are dead or no longer in the ministry. However, as Anderson reports, the list of abusers is far from exhaustive, as a lot of these people not on the list have shrouded their identity from the public so no one would find out about their abuses. The Dioceses of Springfield and Peoria have underestimated these allegations, saying that since they happened decades ago, there is no point in chasing after them, especially since most of the abusers are long dead. Anderson made sure though that these abuses received public coverage to show that no, they weren’t made up and that yes, they are still highly relevant today. In February of this year, the Archdiocese reported that more than 100 priests and other clergy staff sexually abused children, and in San Francisco Bay, 263 priests were branded as sexual predators. Some perpetrators were intentionally transferred and retained in trusted positions with direct access to minors even with their history of sexual abuse. In Doubt, Father Flynn gets promoted to a higher position at another church despite his history of abusing minors, so who’s to say he wouldn’t get away with abusing minors in his new position at the new church?
Although Pope Francis called a global summit recently to address the long history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, many criticized him for not providing any direct solutions to addressing the issue. Many activists said that while he acknowledged the sex abuse, he did not implement any policies that would tackle it head on, such as a zero-tolerance policy or even having the Pope actually release the church files of abusive priests. Still, even though there is much more to be done about the sexual abuse in the Church, it was a huge step for the Pope, considering that the Church has kept these abuses hidden for many, many years until now. While these cases had been hidden, the abuse took a serious psychological toll on its survivors, and these survivors shared their experiences during the summit of enduring depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts after the clergy raped them. Even though the film does not go into direct detail about the serious impact Father Flynn’s abuse had on Donald’s self-esteem, it is clear that it traumatized him. After Sister Aloysius calls him out him for his abuses, Father Flynn delivers a sermon about a woman who gossiped about a man she didn’t like, and God came to her and haunted her forever because she gossiped, telling her that spreading rumors about someone was a sin. Pope Francis called gossip “the devil’s weapon” after he defended a Chilean bishop accused of sexual abuse, saying that talking about someone’s abuses was slander that caused divisions within the Church (he later accepted the bishop’s resignation after an outcry from abuse survivors in Chile). However, the film wrestles with a very important question, one that Sister Aloysius addresses in great length: is it really slander if you’re speaking out against an injustice? Sister Aloysius tells Sister James that “when you take a step to address a wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service”. Yes, some traditional people may argue that revealing someone’s inappropriate behavior to the public is slander, but today we live in a world where sexual harassment policies are a lot stricter because more survivors of sexual violence have come forth with their actual detailed accounts of what happened to them. It may seem as if one is going against their traditions or culture by speaking up against injustice, but you are helping someone else by addressing the injustice done to them. Then again, the movie raises more questions: if people speak out against injustice, should they be aware of any injustice they themselves might have committed? Father Flynn grills Sister Aloysius by asking if she ever sinned when she continues to burn him, and she immediately is rendered speechless and admits to past wrongdoing. The movie also asks: what role has doubt played in how we treat cases of sexual violence?
Of course, I have to read more on these questions to really understand their depth, but seeing this movie raises a very important thought-provoking discussion about power and the individuals who abuse it, and the power of silence, what happens when someone doesn’t feel they have the power to speak up because their perpetrator took it away from them? How does doubt affect the ways we tell the stories of abuse survivors? Whose side should we trust? A mentor is supposed to lift someone up, not make someone feel small. A mentor is supposed to respect someone’s boundaries, not overstep them. But what happens when that mentor uses charisma and their loud voice to make themselves feel justified in abusing others? All of these questions are incredibly important and kept me up all night well after the film’s fittingly stark-looking credits rolled. Overall, brilliant movie. I will have to read the play by John Patrick Shanley next. Can I mention again how much I love Meryl Streep’s acting? 🙂
Doubt. 2008. 1 hr 43 mins. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.