After the film Spotlight hit theaters in the US in 2015, a stunned but grateful audience, even of those in the Catholic Church, made it clear that this information about the sex abuse scandal needed to come to the light. Only if the Church as a whole, clergy and laity, are aware of the issues can we hope to change a culture of cover up and fix what is broken in the system. And fix it we must. Abusers must be dealt with swiftly and firmly, for the sake of our children. This has resulted in the US bishops accepting a “zero tolerance” policy for all who work in and for the Catholic Church in whatever diocese they may be. We cannot risk this happening again and so sometimes the pendulum swings the opposite direction.
The worldwide Church has become much more aware of these issues especially since the now laicized Cardinal John McCarrick’s misdemeanors came to light involving not only the US Catholic Church but also Pope Francis and the entire Curia. Abuse cannot be covered up or tolerated within the bureaucratic confines of the Vatican or bishops’ offices. However, stories still come to light of what has happened or is happening in some dioceses around the world. They are having their own “spotlight” moments. Such is the case with the Archdiocese of Lyon, France with the situation of Reverend Bernard Preynat, former scout master and child molester.
The film By the Grace of God (French: Grâce à Dieu) by François Ozon tells the story of three adult men who were abused as children by Father Preynat and who now seek to expose the story that still remains hidden by the Catholic Church in France. In their own silent suffering, we see how different people deal differently with the abuse of their past. We first meet Alexandre Guérin (Melvil Poupaud) who is an adult man of 40, married with five children. When Alexandre faces his painful past he goes the proper route of making this known to the Archbishop, Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), and is passed on to meet with a woman who deals with abuse cases in the diocese, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). She listens, takes notes, and then prays with him. Nothing more seems to come of his information and request for removal of Father Preynat, who is still active in ministry with children despite files of his misdemeanors in the chancery office. They have Alexandre meet his perpetrator face-to-face to make the accusation. Father Preynat does not deny anything, in fact he admits, “I’ve always been attracted to children. It has caused me so much pain.” To which Alexandre retorts, “Caused you pain? What about me?” They depart without Preynat ever asking for forgiveness. That disturbs the Cardinal more than that he actually admitted to the horrible acts for which he is accused. The excuse for lack of further action is that the statute of limitations has passed. Régine tells Alexandre, “The main thing is for you to find peace.” This part of the film is so infuriating. This was not twenty years ago. This was in 2016! We discover in the film that Preynat and Barbarin were actually friends.
Melvil Poupaud as Alexandre Guérin. © 2019 Music Box Films. All rights reserved.
Alexandre seeks out other victims who were part of the Scouts at Saint Luc. He discovers some horrific stories but several cannot or will not participate in testifying because of the extreme pain they have suffered all their lives. One young man’s brother committed suicide because of the violent abuse he suffered at the hands of Preynat. Alexandre files a formal complaint to the district attorney so that they can investigate it and convict through civil court.
We then are introduced to François Debord (Denis Ménochet), another victim of Father Preynat, who has become an atheist. When he was a child and told his parents about the abusive priest, they worked hard to bring their concerns to the Archdiocese to have the priest removed. But to no avail. Now, François is confronted by Alexandre to help make this known. Together they find other victims and form an organization of those abused by Father Preynat. In bringing it to the press they believe, “The Church must face its silence and complacency…there is so little compassion. What will it take to remove this priest?” Though François is now an atheist, Alexandre is a faithful Catholic bringing his children up in the faith and receiving the Sacraments. He tells François and Gilles Perret (Éric Caravaca) another victim who wants to push the case into the public view, that he’s wary of making this known because people talk. Gilles responds, “I’m Catholic like you. I’m doing this for the Church not against it.” This is really an important line of the film because it gives the entire reason for bringing out this story. Just as in Spotlight some of the reporters were Catholic and did not want to just destroy the Church but felt this was important for her to come clean about the past. It is because they are members of the Church that they want this to come out and the issues addressed head on.
Denis Ménochet as François Debord. © 2019 Music Box Films. All rights reserved.
The third victim whose story is told in detail is Emmmauel Thomassin (Swann Arlaud), who suffers from severe anxiety and seizures as a result of the interiorizing of the abuse. Alexandre’s wife opens up to Emmanuel when Alexandre steps out of the room telling him that she understands what they are going through because she herself suffered abuse by a family member. She comforts Emmanuel, “It takes courage to speak out and expose yourself.” But she assures him that they are all in this together. Emmanuel’s mother offers to be the organization’s secretary to take the numerous calls that are pouring in as a result of the publicity as a way of making up for not noticing the signs when he was a boy. Her guilt, as is evident in all the parents of these young adults, is excruciating, but also leads them to act supportively in making things right. Emmanuel’s toxic relationship with his girlfriend demonstrates his inability to truly give of himself in a loving and free way. He feels he has been robbed of a normal life. When he is present as Preynat is questioned by the police, Preynat refers to him as “little Emmanuel” and says, “how much you have suffered.” It’s emotionally troubling when he relates how he told his superiors but they did nothing. He asks forgiveness of Emmanuel but it comes too late.
Swann Arlaud as Emmmauel Thomassin. © 2019 Music Box Films. All rights reserved.
Preynat is indicted but it takes another three years before the ecclesiastical court removes him from the clerical state. Cardinal Barbarin was sentenced to six months in prison for failing to report abuse but has appealed this decision.
This story is delicately told. It is difficult to watch, especially as the men expound upon the details of the abuse, and it brings out the ecclesiastical authorities’ ineptness in changing the internal culture of the Church in dealing with abusive priests. The Church is always slow to change in anything, but it cannot be so on this issue. The truth always comes out. And thank God for the victims’ courage and for the storytellers who want the Church to be who she really is, “the pure bride of Christ.” This film does this superbly without it becoming an angry protest against the Church. It addresses many issues, but especially the issue of faith. The question arises for so many people who are affected by the sex abuse scandal in the Church: Do you still believe in God? For many, their faith has been shaken, and rightly so. It is so disturbing and frighteningly widespread. But, we can never lose our faith in God who is more powerful than all sin or evil. Evil can never have the last word. Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (16:18). We believe and so we shall overcome. We shall fight this evil and support those whose story still needs to be told. Bravo to those filmmakers who help make their stories heard!