Director of censored documentary plans RGV appearance, with brother whose story of Catholic-clergy molestation is causing waves.
February 07, 2007
By David Robledo
No one is exactly sure how many children from the Rio Grande Valley have been molested by clergy from the Roman Catholic Church. That’s in large part to the refusal of the Brownsville diocese to open up confidential files that would show the public exactly how many local clergy have had complaints filed against them for child molestation, an act of public responsibility that has already been performed by many Catholic diocese throughout the country.
But a New York filmmaker and his brother who was molested in the Catholic Church are heading to the Rio Grande Valley next week to throw open the curtains on that hard-hitting issue, one that continues to haunt Rio Grande Valley residents who wish the Brownsville Diocese would be more open about the known problem of clergy-initiated child molestation.
On January 16, the Brownsville Diocese, which runs the local KMBH public television station, yanked a documentary film titled Hand of God from the regularly scheduled time slot, a showing that successfully took place at more than 340 public television stations throughout the United States.
The documentary, however, was not shown at three stations that are owned by religious entities, including the Harlingen-headquartered KMBH.
Brownsville Diocese Monsignor Pedro Briseño, who serves as general manager for KMBH, offered a public explanation two days after the censorship, blaming newspaper schedules and the right of the station to decide “daily relevance” of programming for the station’s failure to show the documentary at the nationally-scheduled time.
But, precisely because this censorship took place, Hand of God’s filmmaker Joe Cultrera has planned a showing of the documentary at McAllen’s Cine el Rey on Sunday, 2.18. With him will be his brother Paul, who, as a child, was molested by a Catholic clergyman in Salem, Massachusetts. Now 57 years old, Paul’s story, documented by his own filmmaker brother, is causing a stir throughout the country for being the first Catholic church molestation film recorded by a family who suffered through the problem.
Hand of God’s filmmaker Joe Cultrera spoke with The Paper last week by phone from his New York residence. He said that he’s still sorting through email, letters and phone calls resulting from the PBS airing of his documentary just two weeks ago. The film was picked up by Frontline, a PBS series that explores social and political issues. Though Frontline has a reputation for hard-hitting coverage, Hand of God seemed an especially poignant production for Frontline, giving the documentary a 90-minute time slot when the usual Frontline productions run only an hour.
Cultrera, who runs a small three-person film production company, said that he wasn’t necessarily surprised or disappointed that the Brownsville Diocese censored his documentary. “As a matter of fact you have to sort of expect something like that,” Cultrera said, pointing out that the Catholic Church has a history of keeping information related to child molestation in the shadows.
Cultrera was contacted last week by the Rio Grande Valley chapter of Call to Action, a Catholic Church reform group with about 50 members locally.
In fact it was Call to Action that sparked the awareness that the Diocese had censored Hand of God, when two of its RGV members wrote a letter to local media pointing out that the film failed to show in the Rio Valley in the time slot that it aired nationwide.
FOR OTHER REASONS
Cultrera grounds the story of his brother Paul in the details of their Sicilian-American Catholic upbringing. From baptism to abuse and resignation to action, the film follows Paul’s journey from potential priest to scathing critic, while chronicling the way that the abuse affected the inner workings of their close-knit family.
Hand of God, which was a self-funded project that first started in production in 2002, has received strong acclaim from some of the country’s most respected critics and journalists.
Alessandra Stanley from The New York Times called it “an affidavit against the Catholic archdiocese and a novena to the Cultrera son’s elderly parents, who revered the church, but loved their children more.”
Michael Moore, an acclaimed hard news journalist, describes Hand of God as “a symphony that builds through a leisurely first movement, quietly foreshadows a coming tempest, then unleashes itself. And when that tempest comes, it is a fine and glorious example of speaking truth to power.”
But despite the high praise, Cultrera keeps his feet on the ground. It’s more important for the average person to see his film, he said, especially those affected by child molestation in the Catholic Church.
And though the film is finding a market, he doesn’t expect to make any money off it. He produced it for other reasons.
“It’s a self-financed piece because I didn’t want any opinions to change. It’s a personal story, and I wanted it to be purely what we went through, to show how the abuse affects the people who lived it.”
The storyline begins in Salem, Massachusetts with Paul Cultrera’s baptism into the Catholic faith. By 1964, at the age of 14, Paul is an altar boy at St. James Parish in Salem under the guidance of a bright young priest, Father Joseph E. Birmingham. Paul becomes entrapped in a twisted sacramental cycle of abuse taking him from confession, to rectory “counseling” sessions, to nighttime rides in Birmingham’s Ford Galaxy, Joe explained.
In 1992, ten years before the Boston Globe makes clergy abuse public knowledge, Paul speaks of his abuse for the first time. Eventually, in search of therapy, he approaches the Archdiocese of Boston. Ironically, the person in charge of these complaints is Father John B. McCormack — a seminary classmate of Joseph Birmingham and a fellow priest with him at St. James.
Over time Paul becomes suspicious of McCormack’s statements and intentions. Sensing that McCormack is withholding information, he begins his own investigation, tracking Birmingham’s assignments from Sudbury to Salem, Lowell, Brighton, Gloucester and Lexington. He uncovers first-hand evidence that he is just one of probably a hundred Birmingham survivors, and it becomes obvious that McCormack — in his role as Director of Ministerial Personnel — has had a direct hand in at least one of Birmingham’s assignments and the dismissing of parishioner concerns. McCormack is elevated to Bishop, and Paul develops some harsh conclusions about blind faith, Joe explained.
Joe Cultrera said that both he and his brother will make the journey to McAllen for the Cine El Rey screening on their own dime, with Joe trekking in from New York and Paul making his way from California. The two will be available for questions and comment.
It’s a free show, but donations will be used to pay for the expenses of Joe and Paul, and any extra money will be used in promoting this film that is slowly but surely chiseling away at what was once an impermeable wall of subterfuge and silence that surrounded the Catholic Church’s darkest secret. •
Cine El Rey will screen Hand of God at 4:30 pm, Sunday, Feb.18th at 311 S. 17th, McAllen.
Links: www.cineelrey.com and www.handofgodfilm.com