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R.I. filmmaker had to put aside 'Catholic girl mindset'

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 a perpetrator.

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 the nation.

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 fair game.

"As long as you didn't get caught -- and you learned various behaviors so you didn't get caught . . ." he says.

"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 raped.

"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 p.m..

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 said.

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."


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests