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“I Have Such Doubts!”

May 05, 2009 — Categories: ,

The movie “Doubt” depicts the enormous complexity of the possibility of sexual abuse of a child by a Catholic priest. Fr. Flynn is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a likable, middle aged priest deeply engaged in the life of the parish and school. He is open and progressive and wants to lead the parish forward.

The movie “Doubt” depicts the enormous complexity of the possibility of sexual abuse of a child by a Catholic priest. Fr. Flynn is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a likable, middle aged priest deeply engaged in the life of the parish and school. He is open and progressive and wants to lead the parish forward.

His protagonist, Sr. Aloysius, portrayed by Meryl Streep, is the almost stereotypical nun who is principal of the school. Rigid, fearsome and doubting everyone’s motivations, she rules with an iron hand. Her protégé is Sr. James, a young, naïve, innocent history teacher.

Donald is the 12-year-old boy from a home where his father beats him because of what his mother describes as “his nature,” meaning that he is probably gay. Donald’s mother works outside the home and is deeply committed to her son. She has placed him in Catholic school because the kids in public school were beating him up because he was “different.”

The setting is the mid 1960s following the assassination of John Kennedy, a time of turmoil and change. We see the parallel tracks of the rigid, austere convent, a women’s community, and the jovial, good life of the rectory, a community of three priests. The film offers a snapshot of the gender hierarchy of the church clearly manifest in this ‘60s parish. Everyone knows his or her place and acts accordingly. Male privilege is assumed even as Sr. Aloysius chafes against it.

One of the best things about the film is that all the characters are dimensional: Sr. Aloysius has her story; she is more feared than liked, but she cares about the students; she is quietly thoughtful about the older nuns and their needs. Fr. Flynn has a compassionate nature, is willing to ask hard questions in his sermons, and doesn’t hesitate to pull rank when confronted by Sr. Aloysius who accuses him of molesting Donald.

All of the things that Sr. James and Sr. Aloysius observe are legitimate causes for concern: The child’s particular vulnerability as the only African American in this Irish-Italian parish; his subsequent isolation from many of the other children; Fr. Flynn calling him out of class for a private meeting; alcohol on Donald’s breath when he returns to class; the special attention Fr. Flynn shows Donald. Fr. Flynn also has legitimate explanations for everything that they report.

So the drama revolves around the tension between Sr. Aloysius and Fr. Flynn once she begins to suspect him. Sr. James is caught in the middle. Initially she shares Sr. Aloysius’ concerns but then grows to believe Fr. Flynn’s denials. Finally Sr. James presses Sr. Aloysius, “you have no proof!” Sr. Aloysius responds, “No, but I have my certainty.” She goes after Fr. Flynn even knowing that she will lose. She confronts him, “I have no sympathy. I know you are invulnerable to true regret.” She sees him as a sociopathic pedophile. Fr. Flynn resigns and moves to another parish. Sr. Aloysius, “His resignation is his confession.” She tells the Monsignor of her concerns but he believes Fr. Flynn.

The real issue here is Donald. He had finally found a man who would look out for him and attend to him; someone who realized his struggle in being different and still affirmed him. Sr. Aloysius threatened to throw Donald out of the school. His mother argued that if she did, his father would beat him to death. “One man [Fr. Flynn] is good to him. I don’t ask why,” she says.

On the one hand, this could be a classic case of priest pedophilia 50 years ago. We know it was going on; we know that the hierarchy covered it up and moved offenders around. In some ways, Sr. Aloysius’ courage in being alert to red flags and being willing to pursue her concerns and confront the male hierarchy is inspiring. I’m sure there were some nuns who did just that with mixed results.

But on the other hand, this could also be a case of a genuinely caring (though naïve) priest attending to a child with many challenges.

Sr. Aloysius is so certain, so unwavering, so righteous--until the end of the film. In tears, she confesses, “I have such doubts!” The film leaves us with doubts also as to whether Fr. Flynn did in fact molest Donald. (But no doubts that Donald, who would now be in his late 50s, has shared with his therapist his memories of Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius.) And no doubt that the problem of pedophile clergy is real and produces often tragic results. Any of us who attempt to address this issue will, if we are honest, find ourselves filled with certainty and doubt--even as we take action to end clergy misconduct.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute

Document Actions

The Past Actions of the Hierarchy deliberately cultivated the atmosphere where no one could be trusted

Posted by AnnikaH at Jun 20, 2012 07:07 PM
The Past Actions of the Hierarchy deliberately cultivated the atmosphere where no one could be trusted.
Had their past actions been above board, honest, and always in the best interest of the children instead of “avoiding scandal”or any number of a hundred excuses given for harboring these perpetrators, Sr. Aloysius would not had such a dilemma and “doubt”.
If she has doubt it is not because of her own lack of faith.

I think much of the laity wrestles with such feelings and most of the actions of the bishops, pope and vatican.

I think the inner turmoil of Sr. Aloysius is what many feel;
and I am glad the Play was written to reflect that...otherwise it would have just been another thing causing people to take sides.
No one wants to fight or take sides anymore-we are all tired.
We just want our children to be safe...and to be able to trust what is said and done is the TRUTH…not another round of strategic statements meant to mislead, hedge, or hide the truth behind such things as 'mental reservation’, blaming homosexuals or the “sexual revolution”.

Furthermore, on the other hand

Posted by Deborah H Anderson at May 26, 2015 02:07 PM
Having just spent the weekend, for work purposes, doing a simultaneous viewing of "North Country", "The Accused" and "Doubt", what has not been brought up is that Sr. Aloysius is blatently abusive to her charges, smacking them on the head in church services, demeaning and humiliating them. What I appreciate about this film/play is that it most realistically depicts the enormous complexity of such issues within the church. As Sr. James found out, Sr. Aloysius is not above reproach. For many women in the church, it is just as hard to deal with clergy sexual misconduct because female leaders have now both the gatekeeping and the political machine to confuse the issue. We need more discussions at the local church level. More group discussions.