Twist of Faith: Kirby Dick’s Docu about Sexual Abuse in Catholic Church

Kirby Dick’s emotionally touching documentary, “Twist of Faith,” explores the relevant, much in the news, issue of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. It deals with half a dozen characters, both abusers and abused, some of whom live in the same neighborhood, made clear in a shocking revelation. However, Kirby made an important and very fruitful decision to center his investigation on one young angry man, Tony Comes, a firefighter from Toledo, Ohio, who has survived years of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. While telling Tony’s intimate psychological journey, Kirby surveys Tony’s complex and turbulent relationships with his parents, particularly his feisty mother, and with his admirably courageous wife Wendy, who holds the frail marriage on her shoulders.

When first met, Tony seems to have an ideal life: a good job, a pretty wife, adorable kids, and a beautiful house. It soon becomes clear, however, that Tony is just beginning to come to grips with a past he’s buried for 20 years. The constant barrage of news about sexual abuse, coupled with a disturbing discovery in his personal life, forces Tony to confront his own demons.

A proud Catholic, Tony decides to report his abuse to the person he has been taught to trust the most, his bishop. When the bishop isn’t completely honest with him, Tony files a lawsuit–first as John Doe, later putting his real name on the suit and going public. As Tony grapples with anger, guilt and confusion, the film shows how the effects of his abuse entangle everyone around him: his wife, children, extended family, friends, and ultimately the Church itself
While “Twist of Faith” unravels the damage that sexual abuse has wreaked on Tony’s life, it also chronicles a close-knit Catholic town that’s unwilling to explore the truth to its full and bitter consequences. Rather mysteriously, and for reasons he himself cannot explain, Tony does everything he can to hang on to a lifetime of Catholic traditions. He continues to go to church, despite an ongoing pain that seems to get increasingly more unbearable and despite the deceit of Church leaders, implicated in what can be described as a conspiracy of silence. The result is a riveting drama of one man’s struggle to overcome his profound trauma in the face of intense familial, communal, and religious pressures.

In 2002, allegations of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston saturated the national media, had a familiar ring. Similar stories of abuse and cover-up by Church leaders had emerged in Louisiana in 1985, Dallas in 1997, Miami in 2000. Treated as aberrations, most stories were then buried. However, this time the story was too big to be ignored. Dioceses across America were deluged with lawsuits from distraught survivors. An independent study, done with the cooperation of Church leaders, revealed that in the U.S. alone, 10,667 survivors had accused 4,392 priests of abuse over the course of five decades.

Looking for the story that would take audiences beyond the cold headlines and statistics and into the devastating personal and emotional traumas that are at the core of this subject, Dick decided to focus on the experience of one person who had lived through this horror.

In the fall of 2002, Dick and his team contacted survivors, priests, and psychologists in more than 50 dioceses across the country. According to Dick, “There’s a feeling of bombardment that happens with a major news story, where the coverage is so ubiquitous, that you tune it out or it just becomes names and statistics. What was missing in most of these stories was a personal insight into the profound pain that accompanies sex abuse, and how that pain rushes back when one finally tries to tell the world what happened.”

In December 2002, Dick flew to Toledo to meet with firefighter Tony Comes, then 33, and his wife Wendy. During an emotional meeting, Tony described how at age 14 a trusted priest and schoolteacher abused him. Having buried his pain for years, only recently was Tony willing to discuss his abuse with the man he considered his spiritual leader, Toledo’s Bishop Hoffman.

Tony later learned that Hoffman had lied about his knowledge of abuse within the church. It was at that point that he decided to sue the Church, taking the brave step of going public with his story, hoping he might help other survivors who were still suffering in silence. One of the docu’s highlights is a record of an annual convention, attended by sexually abused victims, both male and female.

By the end of the meeting, Dick knew that he had found the subject for his film. Over the next 18 months, he made a dozen trips to Toledo, chronicling Tony’s life in detail. Tony grew up in a large Catholic family, the middle child of seven children. They attended Mass regularly, and he became an altar boy, assisting priests with Sunday services. He attended parochial schools in Toledo, including Central Catholic High School, where he struck up a friendship with the charismatic religion teacher and priest, Dennis Gray.

Initially, for Tony’s family, his strong relationship with a priest was cause to rejoice–they felt good that a respected figure of authority was around to guide and inspire their son at a crucial phase of his life, adolescence.

It turns out that Tony wasn’t the only boy that Gray was “mentoring.” Gray used have “recreational” weekends, during which he would take a number of boys up to his cabin in Michigan to shoot pool, swim, go skinny-dipping, and drink alcohol. What kids would resist these temptations

But then we learn that the priest had his own bedroom, to which he would rotate sleeping assignments, selecting certain boys to share his bed. This becomes clear, when Tony meets with his other classmates of that era. Tony would sleep in Gray’s bedroom, and would wake up to find he was sexually abused. Gray made sure to caution the boys that “whatever happens at the cottage stays at the cottage,” threatening them with severe consequences if they were ever to utter a word about it.

While watching “Twist of Faith,” I couldn’t help but think of how American society’s mores and practices have changed since the 1980s. These days, it’s unlikely that Tony, or the other adolescent boys would not talk about it, at least amongst themselves. But back then, whom could Tony tell, whom could he trust, and who would believe him Gray was a well-respected priest.

Tony said nothing, instead repressing and suppressing his anger. It would take 20 years for Tony to fully understand the implications of what happened to him, and how much it had affected–actually ruined–his life.

Dick, you may recall, had captured some of the darker sides of human experience in his acclaimed film “Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” (Special Jury Prize, Sundance 1997) as well as some of the headiest concepts in modern thought with the award-winning “Derrida” (Sundance 2002). However, “Twist of Faith” represents an uncharted territory.

“I’d never encountered trauma like this,” Dick said about the survivors of sexual abuse. “You look in their eyes and you see the intense pain–something very fundamental was taken away from them.” Indeed, often on the verge of tears, and unable to communicate his anger to his mother or wife (both extremely sympathetic), Tony will reduce viewers to tears with his confession of how he has been penalizing himself for keeping silent, and of the inability of family and therapists to help him come to terms with his past.

What makes “Twist of Faith” memorable is that it doesn’t offer easy answers, nor does it portray a necessarily better future for Tony. Tony’s marriage, the best, most stable thing in his life, is about to collapse, and it’s uncertain whether it would endure, even though love between the spouses is unquestionable.

Producer Eddie Schmidt had an even more personal reaction than Dick to the story. While not a victim of sexual abuse, Schmidt was raised in a strong Catholic tradition. “My uncle is a deacon, and I went to confession, received Communion, and was confirmed at age 15. When Tony showed us his old Communion workbook (documented in the film), I was stunnedI’d used the exact same book as a kid. Only then did I fully comprehend that the Church of my youth was the very same Church that had allowed this terrible thing to happen to Tony.”

Tony had first told Wendy about his abuse before they were married, and for a long time both thought it was a thing of the past. But when the stories about the Boston abuses began circulating, Tony is thrown into a depression that, even as he was deciding to go public, he couldn’t shake.

This is the story’s second, equally important part–the reliving of the pain by Tony and all those close to him, friends and family members who learned about the abuse for the first time. Tony didn’t want to sue the Church–it was agonizing for him–but the docu shows that survivors like Tony experience a double betrayal. Not only did a trusted priest abuse Tony, but when he finally confided in the bishop he felt betrayed again by the latter’s lies
Unfortunately, this element is a recurring theme in the stories of most sexual abuse survivors, but that’s what makes the documentary leap from the personal and particular to the more collective and general. Usually, it’s only when survivors feel they have nowhere else to turn that they decide to sue the diocese.

“Twist of Faith,” like Almodovar’s fictional feature about sexual abuse, “Bad Education,” is not anti-Catholic. In making this film, Dick was struck by how the Catholic Church continues to play such supportive, meaningful roles in communities like Toledo. One of the story’s many tragedies is that the priests complicit in these crimes have also devoted their lives to helping the poor, promoting justice, and helping build a strongly-knit community.

What’s missing from Dick’s docu is a deeper understanding of why does Tony (and his family) continue to be such devout members of the Church, an institution that has repeatedly lied to him. Is Tony’s religious orientation so firmly ingrained that he cannot find a functional substitute for the Church. Knowing Dick’s methods, he might have asked this question, though Tony might have found it too painful to respond. Also bewildering is a title card at the end that informs the viewers that Tony settled for what is a small amount of money. We need to get Tony’s personal view of making such a seemingly compromising decision.

“Twist of Faith” does show that Catholicism still is an integral part of the city, with stately churches on every corner, which makes the dimension of the abuses all the more tragic. It also made some people wary of talking to the filmmakers. Only one local clergyman, Father Stephen Stanbery, interviewed in the film, publicly identified himself as a supporter of the survivors. While Gray and the Toledo diocese declined to participate in the film, “Twist of Faith” includes video excerpts of Gray’s deposition, taken in conjunction with the lawsuits brought against him.

Since the subject of sex abuse is hard to deal with, and easy to deny, it was good of Dick to give the film a psychological dimension. He helps the viewers get inside Tony’s head and heart. Key to this strategy was filming Tony in intimate situations, and also giving him and his wife their own video cameras, so that each could share their feelings about what was going on in their lives when the crew wasn’t there. It’s a technique Dick has incorporated into four of his films, beginning with “Chain Camera,” which was shot entirely by its subjects.

As Tony and Wendy’s trust grows, they share other videotapes they hade made, including their wedding and vacations videos. In one shockingly candid and painful scene, Tony tells his eight-year-old daughter about his abuse, an almost impossible task for any father.

Based on the strength of Tony’s story, “Twist of Faith” conveys the deep emotional trauma of sexual abuse by priests in a direct and immediate way. Hopefully the film, which is an HBO presentation, will be seen theatrically before playing on the small screen. Though not an agenda-driven docu, once seen, it might have impact on raising the consciousness and understanding of sexual abuse among people unaware of the problem’s global dimensions.

Dick hopes that “If the film helps to encourage the Catholic Church to reach out to survivors and change the way it deals with this issue, perhaps 20 years from now, we won’t be learning about another generation of people who have experienced the same kind of suffering that Tony has lived through his entire life.”