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|Boys of St. Vincent, The
by Elaine Perrone
If there is a lamer excuse than I was only following instructions, then it surely must be, We didnt know then what we know now. Those cards are played and then some in this absorbing, infuriating, and, now more than ever, highly relevant two-part movie released in 1992 about sexual abuses of children by the Catholic clergy in the 1970s, and the shameful responses or non-responses of the authorities and the public that enabled them to get away with it.Although fictionalized, the movie, which was made for Canadian television and aired to critical acclaim but controversial response to its unflinching content, is based upon actual events centered on a hallowed orphanage in Newfoundland. By the standards of American broadcast television, the docudrama is so unflinching, in fact, that it is highly unlikely it would be green-lighted by any of the commercial networks, even today.
"Suffer the little children..."
The original Canadian broadcast was presented as a two-part mini-series, aired over two nights. The single DVD transfer released by New Yorker Films includes both segments, seamlessly edited down to 186 riveting minutes.
The story begins in St. Vincents orphanage in St. John's, NF, in 1972, under the leadership of Brother Peter Lavin (Henry Czerny). If Bro Lavin were Baptist, he would be hard-shell, all the way. If the word had been popularized in his day, Bro would have also been recognized as a terrorist for the horror that he and his brethren inflicted on the children under his charge and the complacency born of fear and intimidation that he managed to instill in his superiors, the Canadian government, and the public.
For anyone raised in the parochial school system of the day, the scenes of a Brother tossing garbage cans into dorm rooms to wake the children, or rapping the knuckles of a child whose hands aren't properly washed, probably come as no particular shock. The first sign that something at St. Vincent is horribly amiss is when the boys are preparing for bed and small Kevin Reevey (Johnny Morina) is told to report to the office of Brother Lavin a summons to which he responds with great agitation.
When Kevin is interrupted at play with the same summons, he decides he has had enough and runs away. Apprehended by the police, he pleads with them not to take him back to the orphanage. Instead of even asking the child why he is so frightened, the police deliver him right back into the hands of Brother Lavin, who comments on the boys' "insatiable need for attention" a bitterly ironic observation in light of the horrific scene that follows.
After the police leave, Brother Lavin takes Kevin into his lap, and then begins to undress and fondle him sickeningly. When Kevin responds with the last bit of fight in him, Lavin becomes unhinged, throwing the child against a wall and beating him comatose with the buckle end of his belt.
In an environment where most of the brethren follow the example of Brother Lavin and choose their own "special boys" on whom to lavish their ungodly attentions, the children have precious few champions, even amongst each other. Lavin has meticulously cultivated their silence through intimidation, threatening them that any hint of scandal will cause the doors of St. Vincent to be closed, leaving them "out on the streets with nowhere to go but the gutters."
The one man with the courage to defy Lavin is the school's janitor, Mike Finn (Philip Dinn), who bundles up the throttled Kevin and takes him to the hospital. Lavin, infuriated and by now obviously insane, follows him and fires him on the spot. Mike assures Lavin in no uncertain terms that he will pursue the matter with the authorities, but Kevin, who has been cowed into remaining silent, is released by the doctors, without question, to the custody of the cleric, who blames the beating on an older student.
When Mike begins his pursuit of justice with the Department of Social Services, the social worker who has been assigned to St. Vincent tells him there have been many rumors over the years about abuses in the orphanage, all of which have been kicked upstairs and swept under the carpet. She herself has been told to stay away from the orphanage, because visits by social services have been decreed by Peter Lavin to be disruptive to the children's routine!
Undeterred, Mike takes matters to his friend, the aptly named Police Detective Noseworthy (Brian Dooley), suggesting that the detective start by questioning Brian Lunny (Ashley Billard), a teenager who has incurred Lavin's wrath by lashing out against the abuse of his younger brother and Kevin's friend Steven (Brian Dodd). After speaking with the older boy, Noseworthy cracks the case wide open when he begins interviewing the children, who open up to him frankly about the sexual torture to which they have been subjected. Stunningly, even with all their testimony about having been sodomized and otherwise physically and mentally abused for years, the boys are remanded as required by law to the orphanage, without being given even the small benefit of outside counseling. Equally incredibly, his chief of police a well-oiled cog in the Lavin Machine orders Noseworthy to turn in a "clean" report, doctoring out all sexual references that might taint the reputation of "the most hallowed institution in the province."
As if they hadn't been raped enough, the boys are dealt yet another crushing blow when the archdiocese sends Lavin and a number of the other churchmen away for "well-deserved rests" and brings in another batch of monks whose ideas are more of the same.
Fifteen years later, the Canadian government finally brings charges against a number of the clergy of St. Vincent. Peter Lavin now married with two children is arrested at his home in Montreal and extradited to St. John's. Kevin and Steven, now 25 years old, are both called to testify, but Kevin (Sebastian Spence) refuses to appear, and Steven (David Hewlett), a male prostitute and a cokehead with a criminal record, is not considered a credible witness. (Apparently, another of the things "we didn't know then" is that raping a child might lead to sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, and even suicide.)
As each witness is brought forth, the litany of excuses and recriminations from those who had served in the Departments of Justice and Social Services, the police force, and the archdiocese piles up. The roll-call of the Brothers' victims multiplies, too, and the crimes against their persons are compounded, when Steven's character is cruelly discredited on the stand, his classmates are forced to relive their years of torment, and their anguished loved ones are made to suffer along with them many hearing the heinous details of the abuse for the first time.
One can almost feel on her behalf the horror of Lavin's wife Chantal (Lise Roy) as she learns of her husband's dark past and sees her own well-ordered life, and those of her two boys, unravel before her eyes as the realization dawns on her what her husband might have done to his own children.
With the exception of the fine Canadian actor Henry Czerny (The Ice Storm, Mission Impossible), most of the cast are relatively unknown; in fact, for many, The Boys of St. Vincent is their only screen credit. All perform splendidly, in particular the young boys who handle the gruesome but discreetly presented material with aplomb.
Henry Czerny turns in the performance of his career as the despicable Peter John Lavin, a megalomaniac, a sadist, and a manipulator who is drunk with the power he wields and insatiable in his depravity. In one memorable scene, after Brian Lunny has emerged from a closed-door interview with Detective Noseworthy, Lavin throws him up against a wall, with an icy, "What did that detective ask you, and what did you tell him?" Brian's courageous response "He told me it's a police investigation, and that I'm not supposed to tell anyone what we talked about. He told me that if anyone so much as touches me I should call him. So do you want to touch me, Bro? Do you?" sends him literally reeling with the unaccustomed, and sickening, notion that his abominable power might actually be taken away. It is the classic response of a thwarted bully, and Czerny performs it brilliantly.
The Boys of St. Vincent looks gorgeous. From the outside, the orphanage has the visage of a haunted castle. The inside hallways are shot in warm golden tones, masquerading deceptively as safe havens, with the shadows of watchful clerics as their sentries. The classrooms and dorm rooms are gray and industrial-looking, betraying the orphanage for the Hell for Boys that it is. Complementing the visuals hauntingly is the sound of a mens choir, voices raised in Gregorian chant.With all of the high-profile abuse cases that have come to light in recent years, for which the Catholic Church is finally being held accountable and for which it is paying untold millions of dollars to its victims in "compensation" and counseling, The Boys of St. Vincent is a landmark work that was a decade ahead of its time. Often excruciating to watch, the movie is a revelation and must-see viewing for anyone who wants to be educated and impassioned, not just entertained.
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originally posted: 01/19/05 22:11:05