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paul at a young age

What are your thoughts on this very personal story of one man and his family's confrontation with the church that betrayed them?


Dear FRONTLINE,

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I most certainly empathize with Paul Cultrera. The sexual abuse of children is an egregious and reprehensible crime, and no form of punishment is too harsh for those who commit these crimes.

Unfortunately, this documentary struck me more as a blanket indictment of all things Catholic, rather than an indictment of the individual(s) actually involved, as though the sexual abuse of children is something unique to Catholicism. This impression was reinforced when I read Joe Cultrera's own statement that "our blind-faith formation allowed these sorts of crimes to happen and go unspoken about." Such a statement tells us a more about the person making the statement than it does about the object of his animosity. His use of Catholic images, particularly the Eucharist, throughout the film, tells us more about his own failure to distinguish between the abuse, the abuser, and the Church itself.

Joe Cultrera's basic premise is faulty, for it fails to explain why the sexual abuse of children happens in families, neighborhoods, schools, clubs and other organizations that are not faith-based, or even in faith-based organizations that are not even remotely hierarchical. While it certainly took the Catholic Bishops entirely too long to deal with these crimes against children, one could argue that it is precisely because the Catholic Church is hierarchical that those abused have recourse to the detailed records that were kept on each priest involved. Those of us who were not abused by a Catholic priest have no such recourse, yet all of us have been victimized, not only by the abuser, but by the silence, denial, excuses, shame, and stigmatization of others, as well as by those who have a self-interest in protecting the abuser and silencing our voices.

The sexual abuse of children by sick men who are abusing their authority within the Catholic Church should not be an excuse for anti-Catholicism anymore than the sexual abuse of children by an uncle, brother or father should be an excuse for a blanket indictment of all families, or even of the traditional family structure. When a student is abused by a public school teacher, is the entire public school system indicted? Since the vast majority of priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse were homosexual, would any rational person believe that ALL homosexuals are at fault? Most of the Bishops involved were acting on the advice of medical professionals who pronounced the predator priests "fit" to be placed back into service after completing counseling - why not indict the entire medical profession for the very bad advice of those doctors and psychoanalysts?

Rather than take the high road, and strive for balance and objectivity, this documentary failed to even attempt to provide any real solution to the problem of child sexual abuse, in the Catholic Church or anywhere else. It is colored by an obvious anti-Catholic bias and faulty reasoning, its use of Catholic images, particularly the Eucharist, is offensive, and those of us who have survived childhood sexual abuse deserve better than this producer's exploration of the issue. My prayers are with Paul Cultrera and his family.

Dayton, Ohio

Dear FRONTLINE,

By it's title I was interested....But when I saw what it was about I turned it off.

As a Catholic, I feel deep shame, remorse and regret in regards to what went on, but to use that title is utterly misleading.

God allows things to happen, even abominable things, but He does not cause them...

Charlie McCarron
Brighton, Michigan

Dear FRONTLINE,

Outstanding work! I became physically ill after watching this. I was an altar boy at St. Col's [St. Columbkille's] in Brighton while Birmingham was in charge. The pattern there was the same as on the show. He had a cool car and took boys camping, swimming, movies and the big one.....ski weekends in Vermont. I know about ten guys who went away with him. We thought nothing of it...but now we know differently. Birmingham had a partner in crime at St. Cols in "father" Ed Kelly. I would like to know more about their actions at Camp Fatima. They approached every boy, myself included, in the neighborhood about going away to camp. Thank God my father said no. I read John Doe 3's affidavit on this site and it all came back to me. I remember like it was yesterday when he got hit by the car running from Birmingham.... no one ever knew who he was but the story was circulated that he was some kid hooking school. I love that Paul wouldn't call McCormack "father". My own father is a great man and I wouldn't want him sharing a title with someone like Birmingham. Great work.

Brighton, ma

Dear FRONTLINE,

I applaud you and the Cultrera family for providing a forum for their voice, and ours, to be heard. I thought I would never have the opportunity to "tell my story". I attended (or rather endured) the Catholic school system for 12 years. On a daily basis I was humiliated, physically beaten, and looked down upon by teaching nuns and priests for simply being a child. What a horrible thing for a child to endure, especially at a time when nurturing, education and a strong religious belief are the very foundation of self-worth and growth into adulthood. So many of my classmates became "lost souls", and I place the blame directly on the Catholic Church for cultivating an environment allowing pedophiles and mental abusers direct contact with our most precious commodity, children!! These atrocities were also uncovered in Philadelphia. District Attorney Lynne Abraham successfully indicted 63 priests in our area, resulting in some being permanently removed from the priesthood. The brutality of the Catholic Church has cultivated a cult like environment, where the weak of mind will fail to see the truth. Having to work at the school to pay my tuition, I witnessed these horrible events first hand, and for the first time in my life, I am believed! It is my sincere hope that those who refuse to believe that these events occurred pray for the souls that were not strong enough to endure the abuse. And to those non-believers who feel that we are attacking their faith, their "church", keep in mind that your faith does not have to be facilitated by an institution that attracts and harbors the worst sinners of mankind!

Wallingford, Pennsylvania

Dear FRONTLINE,

In fairness to the Church, it should be noted that the Vatican, on hearing an appeal, ruled that parish property is owned by the parishioners of the parish. If it is sold, the proceeds must follow the parishioners.

Joseph Healy
Seal Beach , California

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

For more on this, see this article from the Catholic News Service.

Dear FRONTLINE,

This could have been my story except for the sexual abuse. Mine is a story of emotional abuse by the same Catholic Church. And while emotional abuse will most likely never be addressed in the courts, its affects can be as serious as one who is sexually abused.

Raised in an Irish/Croatian east coast, single parent family and having attended twelve years of K-12 Catholic education, I too was exposed to the same mind-dumbing program as other kids in the 40's and 50's who attended Catholic schools. The priests often had more authority than our parents and literally took on a God-like aura that was continuously reinforced by the nuns and the poorly educated Catholics in our mostly immigrant community. The attitude was "Here's what you are to believe and you will burn in Hell if you fail to abide by what we teach you." We could question those beliefs but only if they were "nice" questions--never controversial ones. My younger brother once asked his high school religion teacher a controversial question and the principal called my mother insisting that if my brother's questioning continued his mortal soul would be in jeopardy.

Coming from a fatherless home, I adopted the parish priest as a surrogate father. It's no wonder kids like me worshiped the ground they walked on and obeyed their teachings. We became their altar boys,their model students and sometimes their confidants. Easily influenced we never suspected that we were being mentally or physically abused. We trusted too much. After years of therapy and becoming a psychologist, I came to realized the destructive power of the Church and decided to leave. I feel no remorse, only a certain sadness. Catholicism is meant to provide a faith-based understanding of how to live out our lives in humane, loving, healthy ways based on the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. How far it seems to have strayed from that original mission. This is what causes me sadness. What a loss; what a shame.

John Rodwick, Ph.D.
Las Cruces, New Mexico

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am a therapist working with convicted sexual offenders for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Your program was truly extrordinary and for so many reasons that I cannot enumerate all of them here, however, I must comment on some of them. First and foremost the viewers were able to see the complexity of the victim's issues and, what we call, the long term effects produced by these offenses. The effects not only altered his life permanently but the lives of his family, which was told so intelligently and compassionately by his brother. Additionally it demonstrated how difficult it is to just have people believe your story! Even people as close as family cannot fathom such a destructive act and that it happened literally under their noses increases their guilt and shame. My heart broke everytime his (their) father spoke. You could feel his shame/anger and helplessness which are almost identical to how his son was feeling while being molested. It is important to note that pedophiles, such as Birmingham, work in the shadows of secrecy and they groom not only their victims but those close to the victim, and when you are told, through a complicated web of deceit and lies that these people in the Church weave, that you can trust these people and, in fact you have no right to question them, then it becomes easier to understand how people can be lulled into a false sense of security and safety. Our program has had its' share of exactly the same offenders and offenses and we pursue them as we would any other sexual offenders. I hope viewers came away with the understanding that it is truly important to believe the victims and make certain they receive long term professional help, because although Paul is strong and courageous there are issues for him that have to addressed that he doesn't know exist. He has to trust me on this one! I applaud all those connected with this film and will incorporate this into my groups and into our treatment program.RespectfullyD. Bruce Campbell, M.Ed., LPCCKentucky Sex Offender Treatment ProgramLouisville, Ky.

Bruce Campbell
Louisville, Kentucky

Dear FRONTLINE,

I found the Hand of God documentary heavy-handed and confused. No one can justify this shameful conduct, but what is the main point? The film consists of two main, contradictory threads. First, is Paul's loss of innocence and disillusion with the Catholic church. The second is Paul and his brother's crusade to hold the church accountable and punish it. The problem is that these two plots are contradictory. Paul's innocence can never be restored, his respect for the church is permanently damaged. He can get money, which he ultimately does, but these settlements are a large part of the reason why the church needed to consolidate and close parishes. One can't have it both ways. If one treats the church as a business by suing it, one can't complain that the church acts like a business and close parishes that are not deemed productive. This documentary does both.

John Condon
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Why are these criminals not prosecuted for the crime of child rape? Why are the bishops and cardinals who cooperated and facilitated these crimes not prosecuted? Did they not collude to perpetuate these crimes by covering it up and moving the men they knew to be guilty from assignment to assignment thus giving them fresh communites of innocent children to victimize?

In this country, child rape is a crime. It is not a civil matter for lawsuits. It is a crime against the community, and is punishable by imprisonment.

As a matter of common sense, the catholic church as an institution would be better off if the criminals in its ranks were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, like any other citizen. In that case, all the "good priests" and "good catholics," would not be tainted.

Justice will never be served, until it is served.

Sandy Jordan
San Antonio, Texas

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

The Attorney General of Massachusetts did investigate the Archdiocese of Boston, but found insufficient evidence to charge the archdiocese or church officials with any crimes.

Dear FRONTLINE,

After having seen the documentary and read all comments posted, I feel have some interesting observations. First and foremest, the Cultreras have every right to speak about the abuse they suffered and seek some sort of restitution, and to get some sort of explaination for themselves and for others. This is clear. As Catholics, we all feel deep shame, remorse and regret in regards to what went on, but there is a larger issue here.The fact of the matter is that there is a danger of misconception for viewers in that this type of documentary focuses on one aspect, on one facet of a very important, benevolant and productive organization that is, overall, a force for good and peace in this World. These traitorous priests, these wolves inside the Catholic Church ought to be removed and will be punished, rest assured. But, for heavans sake, where was the balance in this documentary? What about countless good the priesthood and the church have done throughout the ages? All the schools, and hospitals that have been opened? All the Mother Theresa types? In addition, what about stories of Protestant Reverends or Rabbis that have been involved in sexual abuse scandals over the years? No mention of these issues. Unfortunately, instead of a clear balanced larger view of a huge organization viewers are left with the impression that Catholic Church = abuse = a bad organization. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Aborting (killing) millions of unborn children each year, executing people and praising divorce and gay marriage are not things that many people in the World (including many non-Catholics) find particularly constructive or attractive.The documentary was excellent but offended some. The fact is, we need to understand the pain of those abused, and we need to stay focused on the victims and rid the Church of these fakes and sick men posing as priests. We need to also remember that the Catholic Church as an organization is made up of hundreds of millions of people that want to stay Catholic, and that stories like this should not be used as a weapon against the Church and the mostly good it does and is capable of doing.

Roberto Sante
Toronto, Canada

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for airing The Hand of God. I am grateful for the courage of Paul and his family for allowing there story with all its pain to be seen. Our son is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. The perpertrator is still the Pastor of a ... parish. The Bishop's hand-picked review board called the abuse immoral conduct but not abuse of a 14-year-old boy. Thank you again for speaking for so many of us without a voice.

Carol

Dear FRONTLINE,

I was not going to watch the whole program, but the film maker's skills caught me up. I grew up in Sudbury, Mass. Two of my brothers became altar boys while FR. Birmingham was at our church. Some of my childhood friends were those who were molested. Perhaps that is why i could not stop watching the program. Perhaps the Church's inability to do the right thing and it's continuing inability to do so is another reason.

The phrase "what would Jesus do?" came to mind while watching Bishop Lennon say "little man". His actions, thoughts and feelings give us all the chance to learn how not to be a good spiritual person. We can all grow from this program being aired so skillfully.

st louis, mo

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am a mental health nurse working in an acute care hospital. I have seen the life long struggles faced by those who have been sexually abused. I continue to wonder why they have such a hard time with it for so long. It is one of the most permanant injuries I have seen. To have it happen at the hands of a priest surely makes it more complicated for the victims.

I am also a "practicing" Catholic. A friend asks me if I am liberal or conservative. I am so liberal that I am conservative. I believe in the old Church when the first apostles walked around and told about the Christ they had seen.I believe in the "doctrines". I think the whole thing about money, power, ceremony, garb, rules etc. is an evil that has crept in and taken hold. But I also think that "God uses all things for the good of those who love him" and I think he is using this horrible evil to help all people to begin to question and to look for what are lies and what is truth. It is exposing what the institutional church has become for many. I cannot leave my church because I believe in the Eucharist. It is too great for me to walk away from. But I am not an active participant of my parish. I work for the poor and encourage my children to think about and do what they can to make the world a little less painful for everybody. I encourage them to think about and be aware of the injustices and to stand up for what is right. I hope they have a living relationship with God and pray for truth in their lives. I hope that you will find peace and that the evil that victimized you not continue to do so.

Collinsville, Illinois

Dear FRONTLINE,

Dear Frontline,Thank you Paul, Joe and the entire Cultrera family. This was a courageous film that exposed the hypocrisy and arrogance of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. All the bishops who knew of the existence of this abuse, in every diocese in the country, should be in prison for crimes committed against children. They have hidden long enough behind their mantle of "men of God". They are nothing more than evil, power hungry, witch doctors using fear, guilt and superstition to to control gullible people. Their goal has always been power and not spirituality or Jesus like attributes.

The symbolism used in the film was right on - the hocus pocus has been exposed. Each of us can have our own personal relationship with God without these arrogant princes' of the church - we do not need these witch doctors with their vestments, incense, Prada shoes, and magic spells.

Elmhurst, IL

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for this documentary... I can related on so many levels. I'm a sibling of an abuse surivivor; and I can recite several close associations with those abused by priests. Having graduated from a Catholic high school in 1982, I recently found out that one of my classmates, who became a priest, was convicted of child molestation. Absolute power corrupts...to have been Catholic in the 60's what can I say? We were taught not to question and now the truth is unmasked. It is appalling to think the hands of God entrusted by many to bless and sanctify would molest and destroy the lives of children...and then worse the heirarchy would do nothing to amend the wrong. The man who molested my sister was allowed to silently leave the priesthood. Too bad his name was never released so that other victims could have the opportunity to come forward. Small men don't seek the truth and their power crumbles. Thank you.

South Portland, Maine

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posted jan. 16, 2007

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