TELEVISION

The hidden terror

A strong drama outlines the abuse of orphans

DIANE TURBIDE December 7 1992
TELEVISION

The hidden terror

A strong drama outlines the abuse of orphans

DIANE TURBIDE December 7 1992

The hidden terror

TELEVISION

A strong drama outlines the abuse of orphans

DIANE TURBIDE

The sexual abuse of children is a subject ripe for exploitation. And when the abusers are lay brothers of the Roman Catholic Church, the mix is particularly explosive. But The Boys of St. Vincent, a four-hour fictional mini-series that closely parallels the infamous events at Newfoundland’s Mount Cashel orphanage, resists the temptation to sensationalize. Told mainly from the viewpoint of the children, it sensitively depicts the physical and emotional havoc caused by their abusers and by the other guardians who failed them. And it is a complex

THE BOYS OF ST. VINCENT

(CBC, Dec. 6 and 7, 8 p.m.)

portrayal of one man whose inner rage and loneliness find a terrible outlet. Still, The Boys of St. Vincent is strong stuff. The scenes of sexual abuse, while not explicit, are almost unbearable to watch. In an interview last week, director and co-writer John N. Smith told Maclean’s: “We never made any bones about the fact that this film was going to be extremely disturbing. That’s because extremely disturbing things happened.”

The drama’s timeliness is indisputable. In April, Douglas Kenny, the ninth Irish Christian Brother involved in the Mount Cashel scandal to be charged with sexual offences, was sentenced to five years in jail. In Ontario, several Christian Brothers are currently on trial, the result of more than 200 assault and sexual assault charges against 28 current and former members of the lay order who had worked at

two reform schools. And in a recently published book called Lead Us Not into Temptation, American journalist Jason Berry cites estimates of as many as 3,000 sexual offenders within the U.S. church. For his part, Smith says that abuse “is an alarmingly large part of our past. And it is tremendously important to tell that story.”

The first, two-hour instalment of the series is arguably the most emotionally powerful, depicting the exposure—and subsequent coverup—of the secret behind the walls of the Newfoundland orphanage. The quiet, darkhaired Kevin Qohnny Morina) is often called into the study of Brother Lavin (Henry Czerny) at night. During one of those visits, Lavin

begins to caress him, whispering “Momma loves you, child.” The shock of those words is like a hammer blow, revealing the perverted logic that transforms gross cruelty into maternal comfort and uncovers the ugly depths of Lavin’s own need. When Kevin punctures the man’s fantasy, Lavin beats him viciously with his belt.

The beating sets in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to a police investigation. Detective Noseworthy (Brian Dooley) compiles an appalling catalogue of outrages as the boys recount their experiences. Those statements are punctuated by flashbacks that imply abuse without actually depicting it on-screen. But as the policeman gets closer to making arrests, other forces ensure that the scandal does not become public. In a few deftly constructed scenes, the film shows how church

officials, senior politicians, bureaucrats and police all conspire to guard the good name of the church—and betray the boys they were appointed to protect. Two of the offending brothers leave St. Vincent, and the investigation ends.

Fifteen year later, the story resurfaces. A royal commission holds an inquiry, several of the former residents try to muster the strength to testify in public and Lavin, now married with two sons, is brought to trial. Henry Czerny gives a blistering performance as Lavin, a man struggling so hard to maintain control that his face seems like a stone lid on a boiling pot. His character’s sessions with a psychiatrist succeed in making Lavin almost sympathetic, and certainly more than a twodimensional monster. Yet the intelligent script never loses sight of Lavin’s weakness, showing him lurching from self-pity to self-knowledge and back to denial. “I’ve been a martyr all my life, first to those little bastards, and now to you,” he tells his wife bitterly.

Besides Czerny, the boys themselves, with their open faces, close-shaven hair and plaid shirts, are heartbreakingly convincing. Morina delivers a subtle performance as Kevin, and Brian Dodd, as orphan Steve Lunny, is an unforgettable mixture of cunning, bravado and innocence. The series also features some interesting cameos, including one by Dereck O’Brien, a former Mount Cashel victim, as the policeman who arrests Lavin. O’Brien’s appearance strikes a note of poetic justice. And The Boys of St. Vincent, with its unpalatable home truths, has brutal but redemptive power.

Macleans

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Compiled by Brian Bethune