With his wispy silver hair and soft features, Father Oliver O'Grady looks like a mild, grandfatherly man of God. It's easy to believe it when he describes himself in a singsong Gaelic lilt as a "people person." Yet beneath his honeyed tones and pleasant smile lies a coldly manipulative monster one of the most prolific sexual predators in modern history, in fact. His crimes spanned two decades in the California clergy, where he systematically violated dozens of young parishioners, ranging from infants to early teenagers. And whenever new allegations began to arise, O'Grady's superiors simply shuffled him off to another parish, usually one within 50 miles. He was eventually convicted in 1993, serving only half of a 14-year sentence, before getting deported to his native Ireland, where he's free to reflect on his sins and roam about unsupervised in public spaces.
This brilliant and emotionally lacerating first feature from television news vet Amy Berg delivers the facts with a reporter's knack for detail and a cinematic sense of story, making it without question one of the finest films of the year, though, perhaps, the single most difficult to watch. Were it simply a portrait of one man's malevolence it would be remarkable enough, but the film effectively widens focus to methodically illustrate how protection from every level of church hierarchy and even certain mechanics of the Roman Catholic faith itself have combined to create a near perfect climate for the predations of pedophiles. Persuasive arguments are made that the practice of celibacy and a perpetual focus on sin create a confused sexual atmosphere in the priesthood, one that attracts pedophiles, though no sanctioned member of the church makes an appearance in the film to refute these claims. Through the expert testimony of legal, psychological and religious experts, and, most damningly, through videotaped court depositions, the film charges church leadership with a cover-up, including Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles who shielded O'Grady, and even Pope Benedict XVI, who, as a cardinal, ordered that the details of the church's internal investigations on abuse cases be kept secret. Further condemnation comes from victims and their families, who tell their tales in gut-wrenching installments, gradually revealing the devastating damage done to their souls. Particularly heartbreaking are parents Bob and Maria Jyono, who befriended Father Ollie in the early '70s and frequently let him stay in their home, unaware that he was violating their young daughter Anne. Their fury at the church that failed them is matched only by their own anguish, an agony that might come across as maudlin in less skilled hands. The camera does occasionally linger too long on tearful moments, but the film is riveting and never sappy, always staying on point, never wavering when things get intense.
The most chilling aspect of Deliver is O'Grady himself. He displays some embarrassment and pleads for forgiveness, but seems unable to connect to his actions, as if someone else had done them, yet he seems to relish the act of confession. There's no surprise in the revelation that O'Grady himself was abused as a boy, but the film isn't seeking to absolve him, instead offering a lesson that evil will most surely flourish if good people just sit back and wait for God to sort it out.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.