The Church on the Stand | The Reader's Guide Feature | Chicago Reader

The Church on the Stand 

In Bailiwick's "Sin," the testimony of abuse victims puts the church on the stand.

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Last month the John Jay College of Criminal Justice released its study on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, uncovering 10,667 allegations of molestation between 1950 and 2002. Eighty-one percent of the victims were male. Two percent of accused priests received jail time. Of course, allegations aren't necessarily based in fact. But when you consider that any claim of inappropriate behavior can get a mom-and-pop day care center shut down, it becomes clear how effective the Catholic bureaucracy has been at shielding its suspect clergy from examination.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this situation is the apparent unaccountability of Catholic leadership. Bishops may gather at public conferences to wring their hands and debate policy, but only one has faced charges of negligence for tolerating the acts of priests he supervised: Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston. He beat jail time after reaching a settlement with his accusers but resigned his position in disgrace in December 2002. Settling out of court allowed him to avoid the humiliating scrutiny of a trial, but New York playwright Michael Murphy has stepped in to give audiences a harrowing look at the details of Law's story. Murphy distilled hundreds of pages of depositions--whose public release is nearly unprecedented--into two hours of fascinating, infuriating, unsparing theater in Sin, a two-act play being given its world premiere by Bailiwick Repertory. Murphy credits himself only as the show's adapter, not as a playwright.

Depositions might not seem ripe for dramatic exploration. Unlike trials, where attorneys and witnesses must negotiate the law's labyrinth and where performance is everything, depositions are conducted in closed sessions by lawyers fishing for information. Murphy doesn't entirely escape the rambling nature of his sources or their occasional plunges into repetition, but these "flaws" add a sense of documentary immediacy. Even in its boring stretches--which are few--Sin gives its audience the opportunity to peer behind the scenes of a unique case.

Sin is far from pure documentary: Murphy has shaped his material to give it a satisfying arc. And he's allowed various interested parties--clergy members, parishioners, parents, victims--to make fleeting appearances, embodying events described in the cardinal's testimony or in documents, such as letters, submitted as evidence. It's a savvy move to allow the victims to appear, seemingly at random moments (three of the six cast members play multiple roles). The victims are an unruly, disruptive force that intrudes without warning upon the orderliness of the legal proceedings--a brutal, unpredictable reminder of the trauma resulting from Law's alleged negligence. One victim was forced to recite Hail Marys while being sodomized. Another was kept on all fours for hours at a time so he could satisfy his abuser at a moment's notice.

Each act focuses on a different priest. The first concerns Father John J. Geoghan, whom the archdiocese moved from one parish to another over a period of 30 years despite multiple allegations of molestation (it's been estimated he had as many as 130 victims). Law dealt with Geoghan twice in the 1980s, sending him for psychological treatment. But both times, when medical professionals assured Law that Geoghan was unlikely to molest children again, he sent the priest back into a parish.

Under rather blunt and unsophisticated questioning by a prosecutor, Law comes across as an earnest man whose greatest sin seems to have been overreliance on his subordinates. Ingeniously structured, the first act avoids easy but potentially satisfying vilification of him. Instead Murphy asks us to identify with a man who allowed what he calls "unspeakable evil" to transpire on his watch. It's an unusually uncomfortable position for the audience that invites soul-searching.

In the second act a much better lawyer interrogates Law about his supervision of Father Paul Shanley (both of the prosecuting attorneys and Law's attorney are condensed versions of a dozen lawyers at the actual depositions). This questioning reveals that Law had a file full of complaints against Shanley dating back to 1966. The cardinal knew, or should have known, that Shanley was an admitted member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, and that on more than one occasion he preached about the propriety of sexual relations between adults and children. When men and preadolescents have sex, he reportedly told a congregation in Rochester, New York, it's the boy who's always the seducer. Furthermore, such sex does not cause psychological trauma in children; children are traumatized only by the legal system, which seems to accuse them of doing something wrong. When Shanley's victims step forward in Sin to detail their treatment at his hands, the testimonials are few but almost too much to bear.

In the second act Law begins to gaze inward, and by the play's conclusion he's nearly defenseless. Presented in such a sympathetic light in the first act, he and his actions (or nonactions) come to seem nearly tragic, though the presence of opposing counsel prevents him from admitting to all the things that seem to be tormenting him. Law becomes not only a victim of his own blindness but the representative of a powerful institution that protects its own at almost any cost--even the well-being of the people it purports to serve.

Director David Zak has done this important play admirable service in a straightforward staging that allows the script to take precedence. The actors put a premium on textual clarity, for the most part avoiding emotional display (except for the final ten minutes, when the characters' hysterics destroy the credibility of an otherwise meticulously constructed stage world). Walking an appropriate line between representation and presentation, the cast for the most part suggest rather than embody their roles, focusing on the truth of their words rather than creating characters. In essence they never let us forget that they're actors on a stage, which adds dignity to the people portrayed and allows the audience to imagine them.

Indeed, on opening night one could hardly mistake the presence of actors onstage given what seemed an underrehearsed performance. At times it even appeared that a stoic Jim Sherman as Law--portrayed with utter matter-of-factness--was reading his lines from papers in front of him. But paradoxically the general awkwardness gave the evening more credibility, since depositions are by nature hesitant and unrehearsed. And why wouldn't a cardinal have notes prepared when facing a prosecutor? Ultimately Bailiwick's raw presentation suits the horrifying allegations.

Sin plays at Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W. Belmont in Chicago, through April 10. Call 773-883-1090 for more information.

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