"Brother, can you spare a dime?" These Brothers won't give you a red cent, kid, but call in an Amber Alert pronto! Judge George Hatch drops the dime on—and collars—the predators depicted in this extraordinary docudrama.
"What did that detective ask you, and what did you tell him?"—Brother Peter Lavin
"He told me it's a police investigation and that I'm not supposed to tell anyone what we talked about. And he told me that if anybody so much as touches me, I should call him. So, do you want to touch me, Bro'? Do you want to hit me?"—Brian Lunny
In dealing with child abuse by sanctified clerics within the Roman Catholic Church, The Boys of St. Vincent was a decade ahead of its time. The film is a fictionalized recreation of actual events that occurred at the Mt. Cashel Orphanage, where it was discovered that over two dozen boys had been physically and sexually assaulted on a regular basis. This 1992 film was made for Canadian television, and later had a theatrical release in the United States. The Boys of St. Vincent is divided into two approximately 90-minute segments. The first half details the horrific treatment these boys suffered. The sequel takes us 15 years later, and we can see the emotional aftereffects that the abuse had on these now young men, and the main cleric who soiled his Brotherly garments.
Facts of the Case
• The Boys of St. Vincent: Brother Peter Lavin is the Superintendent at the St. Vincent Orphanage in Newfoundland. He rules with an iron hand, a barbed wire fist, and a belt buckle across a 10-year-old boy's back whenever he deems it necessary. All too often, however, he simply loosens that buckle so he can molest the preteen orphans under his control. When the recently hired janitor, Mike Finn, finds young Kevin Reevey cowering under the covers of his dormitory cot with a black eye and welts on his shoulders, he secretly takes the boy to a doctor and tries to report the incident to the chief administrator of the orphanage. Getting the institutional runaround, Finn contacts Detective Noseworthy, who opens an official investigation.
Noseworthy encourages the boys to talk to him in strict confidence, but Brother Lavin intimidates them with hellfire-and-brimstone threats about "the vicious rumors that could affect the future of St. Vincent's and leave you all back out on the streets!" When teenager Brian Lunny discovers that his younger brother, Stevie, is being assaulted by another cleric, he agrees to make a statement to the police, and other victims soon follow suit. Several Brothers are arrested, but the Catholic Archbishop intercedes. "This matter has already been dealt with. These men have been removed from their posts and sent for counseling." Noseworthy continues to build a credible case, but high-ranking politicos, corrupt cops, and religious untouchables quickly close the lid on this scandalous can of worms, sealing it shut with bureaucratic red tape and whitewashed reports.
• The Boys of St. Vincent: 15 Years Later: Peter Lavin is living in Montreal with his wife and two young sons when the local police arrive with a warrant for his arrest. He's charged with several counts of indecent exposure, and with physical and sexual abuse that had occurred during his tenure as Superintendent at St. Vincent. Detective Noseworthy has reopened what turns into a Grand Jury interrogation, and he subpoenas the officials involved in the cover-up, as well as the victims, in order to prosecute. Kevin Reevey refuses to testify and reveal the humiliating details of his forced relationship with Brother Lavin. Brian Lunny has managed to put the past behind and raise a family, but his brother, Stevie, has degenerated into a male hustler and cokehead. Sheila Lavin's life goes into a tailspin as more is revealed about her husband's past—and what she suspects he might have done to their sons.
It's hard to say which of the two parts of The Boys of St. Vincent is the more painful to watch. Child molestation is an ugly topic to begin with. In 1998, Todd Solondz used it as one of the subplots in his black comedy Happiness. Maybe I missed the joke, but putting sleeping pills in a kid's ice cream in order to take advantage of him while unconscious didn't strike me as particularly funny. In 2001, Michael Cuesta's more mature L.I.E. took a deeper look into the self-evaluating mind of a pedophile, brilliantly portrayed by Brian Cox (Manhunter).
Most of the abuse scenes in The Boys of St. Vincent are discreetly handled, but you're left with no doubt as to what is being done to these boys, and what they are being forced to do. The film includes a few brief shots of naked boys showering, but in no way are they exploitive or in bad taste. Your stomach will churn, though, when the camera pans to the lustful expression on Brother Lavin's face as he watches these innocent children scrubbing their violated bodies. There is no nudity at all in one scene that takes place in Lavin's private office with his "special boy," Kevin, but the language, forced kissing, and the eventual beating are extremely repugnant. So, be warned—this is not a family film.
Early on, Kevin tries to run away, but is apprehended by the police and brought back to the orphanage. The officers tell Lavin, "This boy really kicked up a fuss, like he didn't want to come back here." Lavin shrugs them off with a wry smile, advising, "One thing these lads have in common is an insatiable need for attention." Ironic, to say the least, considering the inappropriate "attention" taking place within the walls of St. Vincent.
When an older Brother adds a "guilty" coda to the grace-before-meals—"And forgive us, God, for the wrongs we do, and be merciful for the path we've chosen. We, at this table, ask your forgiveness."—Lavin retorts with, "Is there some dark secret in your past, Brother, that you would like to disclose at this table?"
Henry Czerny (Mission: Impossible) is absolutely electrifying as the despicable Brother Lavin, who storm-troops his way through the dormitory corridors, kicking open doors, and tossing in empty garbage cans to wake the boys. During morning inspection, he pats one boy on the head, ruffles another's hair; then, seemingly on a vicious whim, slaps and kicks two others. He's prone to violent outbursts, especially when his outrageously strict demands aren't met, or when his depraved sexual needs aren't satisfied. When Brian Lunny refuses to give the details of his conversation with Det. Noseworthy, Lavin grabs him by the collar and slams him against a wall with a terrifying threat: "You know, you may be leaving here soon, but your little brother is going to be staying with us for quite some time. Think about that."
"Fifteen years later," we're almost made to feel sorry for Lavin, and "forgive him, Father, for what he's done." As a married laic whose past is now being exposed in the media, his lawyer suggests psychiatric counseling that can be possibly entered in his defense. "So…they'll say that most child molesters are Type A…and I'm Type B? Fine." Even stripped of his physical and administrative power over children, Lavin still comes across as insidiously compromising and manipulative of any adults he can now use to his advantage. In a multifaceted role, Henry Czerny first renders Brother Lavin as evil incarnate. "Fifteen years later," Czerny roots out the complex emotional and psychological fragments of Lavin's twisted mind. It's the performance of a lifetime, and one not to be missed by anyone who appreciates incredibly in-depth acting.
Relatively unknown Canadian actors round out the cast, and you won't find fault with any one of them. Johnny Morina and Sebastian Spence are especially effective in the roles of Kevin as a child and then an adult, as are Philip Dinn who plays Mike, the concerned janitor, and Kristine Demers as Lavin's distraught wife, Sheila.
Director John N. Smith (Dangerous Minds) pulled off a real coup with The Boys of St. Vincent. The first half of the film has the polished look of a Hollywood production, with somber amber tones for the Brothers rectory and church areas. The boys' dorms and classrooms are filmed in harsh grays and pale blues. Every image is crisp and clean, but occasionally soft-focused for maximum effect.
For the second part, Smith utilizes an intentionally gritty documentary-style approach. Edited at a breakneck pace, scenes are sharply integrated: Emotional confrontations between Lavin and Sheila; Lavin's sessions with his psychiatrist; the now-adult victims who are all in a quandary about testifying; and the interrogation of high-ranking individuals previously involved in the cover-up. A radio talk show host asks her listeners to call in and respond to her provocative questions, so we get an idea of the various reactions of the people of Newfoundland to this sordid case.
Director Smith co-wrote the literate and controversial screenplay with Des Walsh, and Sam Grana, who plays the smugly subversive Monsignor in the film. Neil Smolar's score is subtle and unobtrusive; but he brilliantly counterpoints the scenes of abuse with mournful chants sung in Latin by monks.
New Yorker's DVD transfer looks remarkable for a made-for-TV film, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is excellent. My only complaint is with their menu options.
I planned to watch The Boys of St. Vincent and its sequel separately, but the first half was so compelling, I immediately went to the menu and clicked on Part Two. What I thought was a quick recap of events turned out to be a trailer for Part One, and I was brought back to the main menu. I clicked again, got various trailers for The Stone Reader and The Life of Harvey Milk, and each time I was brought back to the main menu. There are four trailers in all before you can access the film itself. Very annoying.
I went to Scene Selections and clicked on the opening chapter of Part Two. Unfortunately, it started nearly three minutes into the film, with no prologue or title credits. I used the back button on my remote and discovered that Part Two opens with sepia images of the haunted close-up faces of the boys at the end of Part One. It's a powerful transition, and a smooth lead-in to characters who are now young men, 15 years later. New Yorker Films should be commended for bringing The Boys of St. Vincent to DVD, but their two-part presentation is awkward and frustrating. This is one case in which I would have appreciated a flip-disc. It takes five seconds to turn over a DVD and start the film. It took over five minutes to get to the start of Part Two. Extremely annoying!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was raised by strict Catholic parents. I was an altar boy, and, in high school, I was taught by the Christian Brothers. While researching information for this review, I was shocked to learn that they were the ones implicated and charged in this real-life case at Mt. Cashel (though a fictional order is cited in the film). I remember the Christian Brothers as being generous, sensitive, inspirational, and supportive. In four years, there wasn't a single rumor spread among the students about sexual advances, abuse, or harassment.
So as not to prejudice this review about molestation, let me admit that I left "The Church," not because of accusations against the Christian Brothers, but because of "The Church's" Greed—and that's with an intentionally capitalized "G." A collection basket used to be passed around during Mass, and parishioners contributed "whatever they could afford." It wasn't long before churchgoers were assigned account numbers to keep track of the "10% tithe" on their income that was "owed / demanded" to keep them in the good graces of "The Church."
I quit being an altar boy and left "The Church" when I heard my mother crying because, as obsessive and in control of my father's income, she was devastated by their demands for more money—two to three additional "contributions" each week. As kids we joked about it. "They need more money to buy another safe to stash it in."
Today, it appears that they are still taking advantage of the poor, having recently threatened to close five grammar schools in New York City, unless the local congregations contribute more of their minimum wage or welfare checks. To my mind, if the Pope "cashed in" his least-expensive rings, there would be enough money to keep those schools open—and build one or two new ones to boot.
It came as no real surprise when it was disclosed that "The Church" had been taking advantage of its children as well.
The Boys of St. Vincent is as timely today as when it was made, perhaps even more so. This incident rocked the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Over the past five years, however, hundreds of child abuse cases and revelations of unethical (Michael Jackson-style) payoffs have shaken the foundation of the entire Catholic Church. But who suffered the most damage? The children, their parents, and even single people who had placed their faith in the hands of God's modern disciples. But instead of using those hands to spread the faith, these clerics abused them to spread the legs of children. In one word: Revolting.
I would also describe The Boys of St. Vincent in one word: Riveting.
I can't call it "entertainment" in the true sense of the word, because, like Schindler's List, The Boys of St. Vincent is an incredibly painful film to watch, all the more so because it is also based on fact. The direction and performances are spot-on. If you can stomach some of the scenes in Part One, you will be rewarded by the revelations and judgments in Part Two.
Brother Lavin is guilty as sin. The Boys themselves should have been free to go long before any of this happened to them. They are not guilty and should feel no shame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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