R.I. filmmaker had to put aside 'Catholic
Holy Water-Gate, a documentary that premieres
Monday in Brookline, Mass., took a personal toll on the woman
who made it.
BY JENNIFER LEVITZ - Providence Journal Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005
As a filmmaker documenting the far-reaching sexual-abuse
scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, Mary Healey-Conlon had
scored a coveted interview. She and her camera were inside
the Chicago mansion of Cardinal Francis George, archbishop
of the third-largest diocese in the nation. After numerous
requests from Healey-Conlon in 2002, Cardinal George had agreed
to an interview.
But as the Warren filmmaker met with the church dignitary
in his lakeside residence, where nuns served tea and cookies,
she had two instincts: one, as a journalist who believed in
hard questions; the other as a Catholic who had grown up believing
in the church.
"It was utterly intimidating," recalled Healey-Conlon,
37, a lecturer in film studies at the University of Rhode
Island. "I had to keep reminding myself not to fall into
the sort of Catholic girl mindset, and continue to ask the
questions I had prepared."
These questions are part of Holy Water-Gate: Abuse Cover-Up
in the Catholic Church, a 56-minute documentary directed by
Healey-Conlon and premiering Monday at the Coolidge Corner
Movie Theater, in Brookline, Mass. Last month, the documentary
won a CINE Golden Eagle Award, which recognizes excellence
in professional filmmaking; past recipients include Steven
Spielberg and Ken Burns.
Filming the documentary took Healey-Conlon from vigils outside
the Diocese of Providence through the snowy plains of the
Midwest and to Rome to interview victims, clergy and even
The project also exacted a personal toll. Healey-Conlon refinanced
her house and borrowed money from friends and family -- she
amassed $180,000 in debt. Also, the stress contributed to
the breakup of her marriage to Timothy C. Conlon, a Providence
lawyer and part of the legal team that won a $13.5-million
settlement with the Diocese of Providence in 2002. The settlement
over 36 sexual-abuse lawsuits ended what was believed to be
the longest stretch of litigation over clergy misconduct in
Mary Healey-Conlon, of Warren, who is a lecturer in film
studies at the University of Rhode Island, has made a film
about sex abuse by Catholic clergy.
"We're very dedicated people," Healey-Conlon said.
The church crisis "was something neither one of us was
going to walk away from. At various points, I could have and
maybe should have walked away from this project, because of
the financial strain that it put on me, the emotional strain,
and the sheer enormity of the project."
"The intensity of this certainly would put a strain
on any relationship. . . . I'm proud of what we accomplished
as a couple," she said.
Healey-Conlon started her project in 1999 after working as
a legal assistant to Conlon, who had sued the diocese, alleging
abuse by priests and a coverup by the church hierarchy. She
had worked on sexual-abuse cases before, but these were different.
She knew one of the accused priests from her childhood in
Warwick. The priest, the Rev. James Silva, had ordained Healey-Conlon's
grandfather as a deacon. Father Silva had been convicted of
abuse in 1995. Healey-Conlon learned that the Providence diocese
had transferred him to 12 different parishes in 16 years.
The filmmaker, who had studied her craft at Emerson College
and had worked professionally as a filmmaker, started documenting
the stories of plaintiffs, believing that nothing would come
of the cases.
"There would be this kind of sense that people, be they
reporters or people talking on talk radio, just didn't believe
the victims," she said. "They would be characterized
as looking for money or making up the story, because frankly
some of the stories are so unbelievable. It's really hard
to frankly think that they're true."
She originally envisioned a Rhode Island film, but found
compelling voices throughout the country, including many in
the Chicago area. In the film, Barbara Blaine, who founded
a national support group for abuse survivors, recalls being
molested during the summer after seventh grade by a priest
who told her she possessed "a special level of spirituality
that other people couldn't understand or wouldn't understand."
"There was a cycle that Father Warren would go through
in a sense," Blaine says. "He would molest me and
feel extreme remorse and tell me that it wouldn't happen again."
One of the most interesting interviews is with a purported
abuser,"Father William C," a former parish priest
from Oak Forest, Ill.
Healey-Conlon learned about him from an alleged victim. "The
victim had exchanged e-mails with him, and he basically admitted
to a lot of things in his e-mails," she said.
The film shows Healey-Conlon calling the former priest --
he had left the priesthood in 1993 -- from a pay phone on
a snowy Illinois corner. At his house, after engaging in chitchat
about his rose bushes, he confides to the filmmaker about
his history of abuse -- and how boys 14 and over were considered
"As long as you didn't get caught -- and you learned
various behaviors so you didn't get caught . . ." he
"I don't know why he felt so comfortable with me. I
have no idea," Healey-Conlon said.
He told her about one specific night, in 1979, at his retreat
cabin, 100 miles south of Chicago. He said he'd brought some
teenagers, who were drinking. He said he'd approached one,
but hadn't gotten anywhere, and that he'd masturbated with
another boy, whose parents reported the priest to the police.
Healey-Conlon didn't believe the former priest was telling
the full story. She looked for a police report but couldn't
find one. Through a source, she found the Pullman County police
officer who'd written the report, and camped outside his house
for four days until he talked to her. The officer told her
he'd stayed up until 5 a.m. writing the report back in 1979.
The next day, the diocesan officials had met with the police
chief. The police officer said he was told the case would
be prosecuted in Pullman County. Healey-Conlon learned that
it never was, that the priest was sent for treatment for depression.
The police officer had saved the report in a safe. The boys
were 12 and 13. One had said he was trapped in a room and
"From what I understand about perpetrators," Healey-Conlon
said, "very few of them will be able to really accurately
describe and undertand what they have done."
In the film, Cardinal George responds to criticims that bishops
had not reacted with a sense of outrage. He says he does not
believe it would be right for a bishop or priest "to
put himself forward as sign of hope."
"Just the opposite -- I mean, it's priests who have
done this, and bishops who have neglected to correct it,"
he says. "I think a certain decent modesty in these circumstances
would prevent one from saying well, I can set it right. The
Lord will set it right in ways we don't fully understand but
we can hope for, because he is Lord and we are not."
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a church legal expert, who served
at the Vatican and has spent 19 years advocating for victims
of clergy abuse, said the documentary is "very honest
and blunt about the gravity of the issue," and does not
"worry about being politically correct."
"She managed to get people to interview that no one
else has . . . Cardinal George. She also got a perpetrator.
No one else has been able to get a perpetrator to speak, that
I've seen," said Father Doyle, who lives in Maryland,
and who will speak at the film's premiere on Monday, at 7:30
Healey-Conlon said, "I thought that I had something
really special in the stories in the film, and I felt a sort
of obligation to the people that I had met, and I honestly
felt that it was a lot bigger than any challenge I'd had.
. . . I knew I would finish the project."
Coproducer Louise Rosen, of Brookline, Mass., sold the film
to TV channels in Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Spain and
Denmark, and is negotiating with two U.S. outlets, Healey-Conlon
Healey-Conlon said some in her family were uncomfortable
about her doing a film about the church scandal, but they
have come to appreciate her work. She said the film raised
questions for them, which is what she had hoped for.
"What does it mean? I knew that it would be sort of
a lot of spiritual questions for me and for others."