David McSavage and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.
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Why pop culture won’t lay a finger on paedophile priests, despite years of abuse scandals

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment.

Heroic bankers and altruistic politicians are – for obvious recent reasons – rarely to be found as characters in modern culture. And, given the scale of the revelations of the occurrence and covering-up of sexual abuse by priests, you might assume that the same would be true of sincere and celibate Roman Catholic clergy.

Yet, in these bad times for the Vatican, good priests are surprisingly in evidence on-screen. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary (released on 11 April), is as unimpeachably true to his vocation as that other high-profile representative of the Catholic priesthood in BBC1’s recent Father Brown, adapted from G K Chesterton’s ecclesiastical detective stories.

As Father Brown is a period piece, set before the paedophile scandals, the ordained investigator is free from suspicion. But, in Calvary, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh employs a deliberate strategy of tempting the audience to think the worst of Gleeson’s character. When Father Lavelle is alone with an altar boy or chats to a young girl in a country lane, we are ready to damn him but his intentions are always innocent.

Admittedly, the character is a compromised compliment to Catholicism. McDonagh’s motivation is more artistic than propagandistic. Such is the reputation of Roman Catholic clergy that a good priest – like a good Nazi in war films – wrong-foots the audience. There is also the advantage of putting clear holy water between his work and that of his brother, Martin McDonagh, whose In Bruges (2008) begins with the botched murder, in a confession box, of a paedophile priest.

In an intriguing variation on that premise, Calvary begins with Lavelle hearing the confession of an unseen parishioner who was once a victim of sexual abuse. The penitent reveals that he will kill the confessor in a week’s time: a good priest slain as a surrogate for all the bad ones, after a period of knowing that his death is preordained, like Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.

By beginning in a confessional, Calvary alludes not only to In Bruges but also to the 1953 film I Confess, by (the lapsed Catholic) Alfred Hitchcock, in which Montgomery Clift suffers the burden of being unable to reveal a murder confessed to him by a penitent. John Cornwell, in his book The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession, discusses the cinematic uses of what Catholics call the sacrament of absolution but he goes much further than film-makers have – he argues that whispering sins in the dark encouraged sexual abuse, by locking an often sexually frustrated priest in a sort of cupboard with vulnerable young people.

Calvary contains frequent references to the Catholic Church’s child abuse crisis but the film paradoxically approaches the subject through a protagonist who is a perfect advertisement for the clergy and a script that presents faith and forgiveness uncynically as virtues. In this respect, it is representative of the reluctance of cinema and television to tackle directly clerical pederasty.

Popular culture has a good record of dealing with social and political trends before the authorities notice them. Versions of the 9/11 attacks, for example, occurred many times in novels and films (including Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller The Sum of All Fears) before they became an al-Qaeda plot.

Fictional Catholic priests, however, have tended to be presented as either devil-busters – in the genre spawned by The Exorcist – or sexually as a bigger threat to adult women parishioners than to children. Richard Chamberlain’s Father Ralph de Bricassart, in the devoutly received 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, was also a womaniser, while in the 1994 film Priest (written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Antonia Bird), the central clerics are having sex with a female housekeeper and a consenting adult male.

Even in Doubt (2008), a film made after the extent of sexual depravity by priests became known, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a school chaplain under suspicion of abusing a pupil, the script deliberately leaves open the possibility that the accusations are false. Until Calvary, the most powerful treatment of Catholicism’s shame was in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), although, again, the narrative tackles the subject through distancing tactics.

One reason for the relative paucity of fictional responses is that few actors or directors would feel comfortable spending two hours with a character as morally abhorrent as a man committing sex crimes in the name of God. Another is a perhaps surprising level of residual cultural respect for the Church. Given the scale and gravity of the sexual revelations, Catholicism has been treated kindly by mass entertainment, although the portrayal of the Vatican as the baddie in two hugely popular fictional franchises – Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and, in the guise of the evil Magisterium, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – can be attributed to general revulsion at the scandals.

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment: filmgoers might pray for such a movie by Martin Scorsese, a failed candidate for the priesthood. Until then, Calvary gets to the heart of the matter by bypassing it – cleverly and thoughtfully addressing the worst men in the Church by showing one of the best. 

Mark Lawson will be writing weekly in the New Statesman

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.