In "Hand of God," filmmaker Joe Cultrera explores the very personal story of how his brother -- Paul -- was molested in the 1960s by their parish priest, Father Joseph Birmingham, who allegedly abused nearly 100 other children. Producer Joe Cultrera tells the story of faith betrayed and how his brother Paul and the rest of the Cultrera family fought back against a scandal that continues to afflict scores of churches across the country.
"I was inspired by my brother's strength of spirit in surviving his abuse," says Joe Cultrera. "His story was unlike any I had seen in the media. I thought a detailed film about his and my family's experience would prove healing and freeing for others."
Paul Cultrera and his siblings were raised in an Italian-Catholic family in Salem, Mass., and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. From an early age they were immersed in the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church.
"There was the Catholic Church, and everything else was hell," Paul recalls. "Everyone beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church was doomed. Everything was presented to you in terms of sin."
At 14, Paul, an altar boy at St. James Parish, came under the guidance of Fr. Birmingham. Birmingham was young and friendly, often taking the boys on trips and inviting them to the rectory for Friday and Saturday night pizza parties. It was during confession that Paul's relationship with Fr. Birmingham changed. Confessing to masturbation led to private "counseling" sessions at the rectory, where Paul was sexually abused. Birmingham also abused him during nighttime rides in Birmingham's black Ford Galaxie and on trips out of town.
"When you're totally wrapped up in the environment of sin and guilt, you internalize it yourself. At least I did. I decided it was my fault. It was something the matter with me," says Paul. "You think you've done something really bad. So you become very adept at drawing a huge circle around that part of your life."
Paul would keep his secret for nearly 30 years, until he decided to finally confront the Church and launch his own investigation into whether the Archdiocese of Boston had covered up allegations against Birmingham, moving him from parish to parish and placing more children in danger.
Paul began to place advertisements in the newspapers of the various towns where Birmingham had been posted, asking the simple quesiton, "Do You Remember Father Birmingham?" The dozens of responses he received were his first indication that he was certainly not Birmingham's only victim.
A homegrown detective story, the film follows Birmingham's trail and the cover-up instituted by his superiors. Balancing faith against outrage, the Cultrera family survive it all with their humanity and humor intact.
"The film created an opportunity for my family to deal with these issues in a very intimate way," says Joe. "We have emerged as a more understanding unit. One of my hopes is that the film will inspire other families to talk."