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A conversation with filmmaker Joe Cultrera and co-producers Laura Corwin and Hugh Walsh. They talk about the making of this film that explores how the Cultrera family fought back against a scandal that has afflicted scores of churches across the country.

Joe Cultrera with his camera

Tell us about your previous work.

Joe Cultrera: I make my living as an editor for other filmmakers, cutting projects that wind up on various TV outlets or other places. For instance, I co-edited with Laura Corwin a behind-the-scenes documentary on the Rolling Stones' "40 Licks" tour, which is on their "Four Flicks" DVD. Occasionally I feel I have a unique perspective on a story and want to tell it myself. I dip into my editing savings. The Stones don't know it, but they funded "Hand of God."

I've done a few other one-hour documentaries. One was a piece called "Leather Soul: Working for a Life in a Factory Town," which was narrated by Studs Terkel. It looks at the changing face of American factory towns through the example of Peabody, Mass. Peabody once was home to over a hundred leather tanneries; the place stunk of work. Now the factories are all gone, leveled or turned to condos. My dad worked 50 years in those tanneries. I did a year, which was enough to give me other ambitions.

"I wanted "Hand of God" to be quiet, like those church silences that are broken only by a cough or a baby's cry."
Joe Cultrera

"Witch City" is a piece I directed and edited in conjunction with a few other filmmakers who grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. We wanted to take a look at how my hometown of Salem, Mass., was going to handle the 300th anniversary of the witchcraft trials, given the fact that the city had already become a witchcraft Disneyland. ...

Why did you decide to make this film?

Laura Corwin: It began when Joe had completed the short film, "For The Love of God -- The Closing of St. Mary's Italian Church." ... Joe asked Hugh, Henry Ferrini and myself to shoot the last Mass at St. Mary's so he could put together a short film as a gift to the community. It was therapeutic for the parishioners to watch "For The Love of God" as it gave them a sense of validation and closure, but it was also a therapeutic process for Joe in making it. ... It also became very clear that Joe needed to tell the larger story; that the closing of St. Mary's was just one part of a much bigger picture. ... As Joe says in "Hand of God," "This film has been making itself since before I was born, and I'm still trying to fit the pieces." That line is a perfect synopsis of the process of making this film.

Editor's Note: Read an update on St. Mary's Italian.

How do you think this film compares to other documentaries on the subject of sexual abuse by priests? What did you set out to do differently?

Joe Cultrera: "Hand of God" is a film first and foremost about family. It has an investigative spine, but at its human core it is a story of how bad things happen to good people, and how those people react and survive by forming a tight circle. The film has no agenda except to speak in true detail about my family's experience. I wanted to inform through experience, not through expert analysis. I wanted people who did not grow up Catholic to see what that was like and how our blind-faith formation allowed these sorts of crimes to happen and go unspoken about. For Catholics there would be an obvious recognition and maybe a sense of healing because of the portrayal of strength in family. ...

I was very adamant from the outset that I would not use the obvious dramatic devices I saw in every other film on this subject. Although audiences react to this stuff, and critics seem to swoon over it, I've really come to distrust this style in documentaries. Maybe it's because I'm an editor and often have to use these techniques for other people. I see how manipulative it is.

Every other film I've seen starts with church imagery underscored by a boy's choir and they continue on in that overly dramatic tone. I wanted "Hand of God" to be quiet, like those church silences that are broken only by a cough or a baby's cry. I figured the audience was smart enough to find their own emotion without putting up signposts. I wanted to give my brother -- who is unlike many other survivors -- the pulpit. And I wanted to keep the voices to those that had lived it, excluding any expert commentary. I also knew the film had to have a sense of humor. That may sound strange for a film about abuse, but my family is pretty funny. I think humor, particularly my Mom's laugh, has helped get us through this and other dramas.

Hugh Walsh: There simply was no interest in depicting the abuse; we all know what this is. We wanted to know what it means, how it affects. How it can happen, for sure, but more importantly how it can be allowed to happen. How individuals in power, individuals charged with the welfare of a community, routinely overlook heinous crimes out of convenience, personal loyalties or for advancement into ever greater positions of power. ... This film makes a unique case against those in power and proves that this is not something that only happened decades ago but continues even now into the 21st century.

Additionally, this film is driven not so much with the visual trappings of the church as with the images and icons of a family deeply involved in the church. The images and sounds are not from what the church itself projects, but from, and through, the eyes of those who have lived lives in the service of this church, all for the good and the bad.

Laura Corwin: ... I was raised in suburban New York in the Jewish faith. When Joe first told me that the archdiocese was closing St. Mary's Italian Church and selling it, I really didn't understand how that was possible. I don't practice Judaism now, or any religion for that matter, but I know from my upbringing that the synagogue belongs to the congregation and is theirs to do with as they deem fit. ... A centralized entity having the ability to simply take away something that belongs to the people who created it was a completely foreign concept to me.

Working on "Hand of God" also made me realize how much power the Catholic priest has. ... I remember as a child my father complaining about a rabbi that had been hired by our congregation. Evidentially, the majority of the congregation had problems with this rabbi's sermons. They let this rabbi know it and told him to start looking for another temple to work in when his contract was up. The rabbi of course was to be respected but never was associated as God himself or even a person who had more access to God than we did. The rabbi was a man who was hired to provide spiritual guidance.

It was only from this film that I learned that the Catholic Church is a hierarchical corporation with its headquarters located in Rome, where the Pope acts as CEO and gives orders to be followed by all the churches in the world. Cardinals, bishops and priests are all appointed into these positions. The parishioners have nothing to do with the hiring process, and obviously the same holds true for the firing process. It is now easy for me to understand how such an enormous abuse of power and wide-scale cover-up could take place.

This is not to say that clergy sexual abuse does not take place in other religions, Judaism included. However, "Hand of God" does show how the enablers ... are rewarded for their efforts, thus spreading the abuse to a grand scale. The fact that Bernard Law, after resigning when the heat of the scandal became too much for him, was appointed to one of the largest basilicas in Rome was simply incomprehensible to me at the start of making this film, yet [it became] completely understandable to me by its completion. What I once thought of as complacency on the part of Catholics ... I realize now is an instilled conditioning accomplished through fear and guilt.

"Hand of God" is really the only film on this subject that clearly defines and lays out all of this. It is a film that explains to anyone, regardless of their religion, culture, social or economic status, how such an enormous indignity could take place.

The film has a very distinctive visual style. How did you make those shots, and what are they meant to evoke?

Joe Cultrera: Well, I'm not Ken Burns, and even if I was, I only had one good photo of the main antagonist, Joe Birmingham. ... We decided to create impressionistic imagery that conveyed the sort of dark, unclear spaces that the abused hid in. I began thinking in terms of how we were baptized into Catholicism with holy water, and how at some point that water engulfed us. When my brother Paul told me the story of first admitting his abuse, he was very vivid in his recollection of sitting in a car while it was raining. I started to think of the film as if it would all play out through that rainy windshield -- holy water, tears, veiling the imagery.

statuette in a vise

Except for one grant from the Jerome Foundation I funded this film myself, so I had no real budget, but I set aside about 200 bucks for props. I ordered some [communion] hosts on the Internet, won some bids for other clergy paraphernalia on Ebay, and I began spending way too much time shopping in party favor stores. I gathered collections of those little First Communion figurines that people gave as gifts or stick on cakes.

I thought we could create twisted holy water dioramas filled with these fetus-like statues. The church wanted us to be like these little figurines, frozen forever, on our knees in deference to them. I bought a fish tank and asked Hugh Walsh, my director of photography, if he would come out to play with his lights and camera. ...

Hugh Walsh: Joe brought together a collection of props: pictures, little figurines of altar-boys, communion wafers and the like. Since water was to be such an important theme, something that was to weave throughout the film, we started with a large, empty mayonnaise jar and filled it with water. We'd stick the little alter boys and photos in and around this jar and light away. ... It was a very organic and intuitive process which involved little talk or explanation between us. We had a number of these "fishtank photography" sessions interspersed between times with the family in Salem and California.

Joe Cultrera: There are some other image patterns that weave through the film. A lot of it takes place in cars. Birmingham and other pedophile priests had these fancy, seductive cars that they used to lure children; for kids from that era, cars were like video games. When Paul is able to break from Birmingham's grasp he is assisted by the fact that he gets his driver's license and can use my parents' car to get away from the area. When he ends his marriage, he drives off in his beloved Fiat. He first tells of his abuse in a car, then he confesses to his girlfriend about his abuse when she confronts him about how his Fiat is always breaking down. These driving sequences gave the film some motion and energy.

I also saw the car wheels in symmetry with the turning clothesline pulleys and 8mm projector reels that are reoccurring images. I like to find groupings of imagery in a film; this one was a group of circles and abstracts. Most of the film is shot in close-up, to give a sense of claustrophobia.

What was your brother's reaction to your wanting to make a film about him? How involved was he? What did he think of the finished product?

Joe Cultrera: Paul approached me many years ago, before all this stuff hit the headlines, about writing a book. I didn't think I had the discipline to do that. ... I eventually came around to the certainty that film is what I do best. I think Paul was a bit reluctant about playing this part of his life out on film, but he said he trusted me.

It took a while before we got going. The scene of the closing of St. Mary's Church was the first thing we filmed. When I saw that priest on the altar giving me the thumb -- telling me to leave -- I took it as a signal to get my butt moving on this project. That moment was like a light bulb going on: I saw a clear story line between what happened to my brother and what was happening to my parents.

Paul did not want to be involved with any decisions behind the camera or with the editing. He didn't want to see the film until it was done. This was a great amount of trust to be handed; I don't know whether it was tougher for him to hand it to me or for me to carry that load. ...

When he saw the finished film I think he was relieved and very happy. His main reaction was that the film explained his story in such detail that if people didn't get it, well, they never would. He thought the imagery somehow reflected what the whole experience felt like and looked like. Of course, his first reaction was, "Well that's the funniest film I've ever seen on sexual abuse." I took that as a major compliment because I think this film is very real and shows many sides of his character and the other characters in my family. In any case, Paul is very behind the film and has gone on the road when he could to do Q&A's after screenings.

What was your reaction when your brother first told you about his abuse? In the film you say you worked on fundraising films for the Catholic Church in Newark, N.J.; was that before or after you learned of his being abused? How did you reconcile that work with what had happened to him?

Joe Cutrera: I had a production company, and one of our gigs was with the Archdiocese of Newark, creating video versions of the archbishop's Annual Appeal. I was writing words, and then would see those words come out of an archbishop's mouth. It was Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who then went on to become cardinal of Washington, D.C.

I also was creating heart-tugging visual and musical treatments to underscore those words. I used some of the same 8mm family home movies from "Hand of God" to elicit these emotions. ... It's interesting, from a film point of view, how imagery can completely take on a new meaning given the context in which it is placed. Those happy 8mm church memories feel quite different in "Hand of God." ...

When Paul told me about what happened to him I realized my days as a Catholic shill were over. Here was my brother, just trying to get the Church to continue paying for therapy, while I had helped them raise over $100 million dollars. And neither of us at that point realized the scope of this thing.

I reconcile this part of my life with what happened to Paul because it was just a paid job. Once I realized what was going on with the corporation that was paying me, I quit the job. To quote our president, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... I won't get fooled again."

Question for Laura and Hugh: This is a film very much about the Cultrera family, and there are a lot of intimate moments with Paul and other family members. Could you talk about the experience of getting the family acclimated to your presence so that you could film them?

Hugh Walsh: Laura and I were accepted by the Cultrera's from the beginning. We were Joe's friends and for them, that's enough to make you family. During the course of filming we made many trips to Salem, always staying as guests in their house. I was always pulling out some sort of camera, taking photos or shooting with a small video camera. After awhile, if noticed at all, it was met with something like an amused "he's doing it again" response and then promptly ignored. ...

Paul was a little different. He lives in California, so it wasn't possible to simply sidle up to him the way we did with the family in Salem. Just going out there framed things more formally. However, Paul's desire to tell his story and his astonishing trust in Joe rapidly cut through much of the awkwardness that accompanies such a delicate story. And he's a Cultrera; if you're Joe's friend then you're his friend, too.

Laura Corwin: ... Interestingly though, after quite a few trips up to the family's house in Salem over several years, the majority of the interview content that was used in the film was captured on the very last day. Joe's father, mother and sister's openness that day I don't feel had much to do with us being there but more to do with having their own time to reflect on their feelings about the church since the closing of St. Mary's.

Joe's sister Maria tells us that attending Mass "is not the same" since she's lost her church and also lost part of her brother. Joe's mom, usually laughing and making light of things ... is a lot more candid emotionally. Joe's dad pulls no punches when he calls the priests "a bunch of hypocrites." At the start of making this film, I really believe they would have been much more hesitant to criticize the church, on camera or off.

The film has been shown at several film festivals; could you tell us about that experience and about some of the reactions you've gotten?

Joe Cultrera: It's been interesting, hard, invigorating, depressing, amusing. It's a very hard film to get people to come out of their houses for. That's why FRONTLINE is so important for this film; people that would never be seen in public watching it will watch it on TV, and FRONTLINE will open it up to other audiences.

For people that have come out to see it, they generally love it, and we have really interesting Q&A's. I've seen how it is educational for those who are not Catholic and healing for those who are. I've made it a point to be at as many screenings as possible, often at my own expense, just to have these interactions.

Except for a rare occurrence, it's been impossible getting church loyalists and any clergy to attend. It's been in close to 20 festivals, and I've had less than a dozen priests show up. It's not like I don't try: I email local clergy, call them, and even knock on their doors. It's become almost a sport with me. ... I've come a long way from that shy little kid who lived in fear of priests and nuns. But it's all in good sport, and I truly am trying to encounter them rather than showing this film behind their backs. I think the clergy actually needs this type of film to come to an honest communion with those who have been hurt.

The few clergy who have shown up have had a hard time with the film, as they should, but have seen its worth. And the community who worships with these particular priests tends to feel better about that relationship; it demonstrates that they are at least open to dialogue, and it shows they actually walk the walk. I had a great email from a priest in Orlando who saw the film and was very moved by it. He said, "I don't do movies," but was compelled to come to mine. I wrote him back and said that "I don't do Mass," but since he came to my show I would come to his, so I drove a half-hour to attend his Mass. This is the give and take I was looking for. It's what we need to get over hurdles.

It's several years now since the scandal broke in Boston, and by some measures church attendance and collections have rebounded a bit. It seems that many Catholics want to put this behind them. What's your reaction to that?

Joe Cultrera: My reaction is that this is not a film about the past. Despite the thousands of lives he has seriously damaged, John McCormack is still a CEO in the Catholic corporation. Cardinal Law has a great job in Rome, and he's obviously enjoying the culinary charms of Rome because he gets fatter every time I see him. Bishop Richard Lennon, who shows his arrogance in our film, has been put in charge of the Diocese of Cleveland. Anthony Laurano [former pastor of St. Mary's Italian] is on trial [for child rape]. And those are just the characters in this one small sampling of a film. ... [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger had first-hand knowledge of these abuses in his previous position and did nothing; now he's playing the role of Pope. It's hard to put it behind you when most of the players are still playing.

Editor's Note: Read updates on Cardinal Law, Bishops Lennon and McCormack and Fr. Laurano.

The pedophiles are not the real evil here. They were sick human beings that needed to be taken out of service and society. The evil is in the caretakers who kept giving them new crops of victims. Those caretakers continue to act as moral authorities. How anyone can kneel in front of them is beyond me.

Some Catholics would say that, while the abuse your brother suffered was horrible, no amount of money is adequate compensation, and the financial settlements the church paid out to victims hurt others, like your parents, by contributing to the closing of parishes. What is your response to that?

Joe Cultrera: Yes, no compensation is adequate, but what other recourse is there? They are beyond the law, and the corporation is obviously not going to police its officers.

This idea of churches closing to pay for victims is one of the most evil games the corporation has played on believers; they turn one against the other. Even in the closing of these parishes they set it up so that the people in a community were forced to choose which churches to close. You had parishioners acting as the corporation's executioners.

The Catholic corporation is one of the wealthiest in the world. They ought to be forced to pay for their own sins rather than taking churches and properties that they had nothing to do with financing, cashing them in and paying off their own debts. It's sinful and it's criminal. They should look into selling off some of their Vatican riches, limiting Cardinal Law's meal allowance, holding a simpler funeral for a Pope that did very little about all this abuse, the abusers or the enablers. Believe me, the Catholic corporation has the means to handle these payouts without burning down neighborhood churches.

fending off filming

Bishop Lennon telling Joe Cultrera that he cannot film the headquarters of the archdiocese.

Hugh Walsh: One reaction that has startled me when speaking of this film to others is the remarkably common response that they already know this film, or at least this story. Then they trail off into something about this all happening in the past, or that "of course there are some bad priests, yes, but what about the good ones?" Their need to minimize or tidy up their impressions of this horrifyingly widespread problem is simply astonishing. Even Joe's own mother tells him that he's "holding this against God," so closely drawn are the ties between the institution and the faith.

By film's end one simply cannot come away but with a more clear understanding that there was, and continues to be, an institutional cover-up of the facts of priest abuse of minors, and that certain of the Church hierarchy continue to protect their own with an almost messianic fervor, and others be damned.

Towards the end of the film, Joe and Paul tell their parents that they are not going to go back to church, but it's obvious that the rest of the family is still faithful. What effect has the "suppression" of St. Mary's, as the church calls it, had on your family? Do you miss going to Mass?

Joe Cutrera: "Hand of God" is about individuals finding their own way through faith, making space for each other, respecting and loving each other as individual, thoughtful spirits. My parents and sister have their spiritual way; Paul has his; I have mine. We share a spirit of family.

Even though I had stopped going to Mass, I miss the existence of Mass at St. Mary's Italian in the sense that it was a community event, held at a facility the neighbors built to honor their families. I go to Mass every day, but I don't do it in an approved church. Church, in the old meaning, meant the people in a parish who gathered to worship. I find church with the people who attend my screenings and in my daily interactions with friends and strangers. I am enriched by these occurrences, and I see God in all of it. I don't need the ceremony, the money and the power.

I think the hierarchy has shamed their own institution, defiled the sacraments, and in doing so they have tarnished the very concept of Catholicism, if we are to believe that these are Catholicism's keepers. I see the making of this film and the screenings as a very non-institutional Catholic act and I see my life on the festival and screening circuit as missionary work. I have never felt more spiritual. Catholicism is an idea based on teachings of love and compassion; this film is full of that. I don't need a shepherd because I am no longer a sheep. ...

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posted jan. 16, 2007

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