Where does sickness end and evil begin? Juan Vaca, an alleged victim of sexual abuse as a child by his spiritual advisor, poses the tricky rhetorical question toward the close of Vows of Silence, a film director (and Gambit Weekly contributor) Jason Berry describes as an 'anatomy of the justice system in the Vatican." It's just one of many unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, queries raised by the exposé, whose analysis of the Catholic Church's ostensible investigation into Vaca's charges reveals a grossly mutated anatomy indeed. Based on Berry's and Gerald Renner's 2004 book by the same name, the riveting film delves into the case against the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, an influential priest, founder of the radical Legion of Christ congregation and primary fundraiser under Pope John Paul II. Vaca and eight fellow legionaries, following years of vow-induced silence (criticism of the Legion's leaders was tantamount to religious hara-kiri, the documentary explains), together accused Father Maciel of multiple acts of pedophilia and sexual abuse while he was serving as the group's primary caretaker. Berry, acting as the film's narrator, walks the viewer through not just the unfolding scandal but also the long history of Maciel's unfortunate rise to power, which included two expulsions from seminaries as a youth and numerous other telltale signs of trouble " warnings that were ignored by the pope and others, Berry offers, in favor of Maciel's longstanding allegiance to the Catholic Church and the prodigious revenues generated during his time in the Holy Father's cabal.
Vows of Silence doesn't focus myopically on Maciel's supposed sexual deviance, however. The probe is a wider-reaching study, examining in turn the Vatican's warped power structure from the top down and how the transfer of the papacy " from John Paul II, a staunch Maciel supporter, to Joseph Ratzinger, a largely unknown quantity at the time of his selection by the Conclave in 2005 " would go on to impact the due process of justice on such an entrenched and potentially inflammatory subject matter. Its call into question of the integrity of John Paul II, among the most beloved figures in modern Roman Catholic history, is just one example of the film's constant willingness, and even zeal, to tackle hugely unpopular topics in pursuit of the truth.
In another powerful sequence, the film detours midway through to profile siblings Christopher and Elizabeth Kunze, a priest in the Legion of Christ and a missionary in Regnum Christi, respectively. The latter movement, a controversial, lay ecclesiastical wing of the Legion, was accused of striving to create a 'parallel church" by one Catholic bishop. Berry posits the Kunze clan as a microcosm of the Legion's myriad destructive effects: Elizabeth, still dedicated to the cause, has been estranged from her family for years, while Christopher now denounces the entire enterprise, tearfully describing his own molestation at the hands of his mentor, Father Maciel.
Set to a disquieting score of stabbing strings and pieced together like a suspenseful Hollywood thriller, Berry's picture is most affecting in its individual interviews with the humiliated Christopher Kunze, the resolute Juan Vaca and their allegedly abused brethren. These sad, long-suppressed confessions, which range from silent sobs to bitter condemnations, each burn with a shared shame " the raging fire and shadow story beneath Rome's billowing black and white smoke.
Vows of Silence's screening during the New Orleans International Human Rights Festival is its local premiere.
- The Legion of Christ seminary in Salamanca, Spain