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No Refuge in Holy Mother Church

Courtesy of TIFF

Pray for Our Sinners (2022)

At the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Sinead O’Shea expressed anxiety about how “Pray for Our Sinners” will be received in Ireland, specifically in her hometown of Navan, where the documentary was made and is set. This is not only because of the consequences it might have for her personally – her sister works at the elementary school at its center, for a start – but also because of the cultural sensitivity which still surrounds its subject. It is no longer a secret that the Catholic Church in Ireland was a brutal master, which used extreme social control as well as violence to maintain its power and run Irish society to its own ends. But what is still secret is how some people were able to defy the church at the height of its power, mostly through hidden methods. Ms. O’Shea frames this narrative of revelation through a modern, American-style lens, one of power and resistance. This is an unusual framing in Irish culture, which tends to take abuse of power as a given, defiance as something to be proud of, but above all, “whatever you say, say nothing.” The reason for this framing is Ms. O’Shea’s embarrassment at growing up under the shadow of some local heroes without any idea they were there. It is an excellent demonstration of how the personal is political.

Navan made international news in the mid-’60s after a little boy named Norman got badly beaten up by a priest, one of his teachers, at school. His mother went to the local doctor, Paddy Randles, asking for a note to prevent the priest from continuing to beat the 9-year-old on the arm the priest had broken. Let’s repeat that. She wanted a doctor’s note to ensure a priest beat her son only on his good arm, not the one he had already broken. Dr. Randles did not provide a note. Instead he went to the school and confronted the principal, who instead bragged of the studded belt he used to beat the kids with, not the rubber hose Norman’s teacher favored. So Dr. Randles went to the press, but a story this directly critical of the Catholic Church was too hot for any Irish journalist to touch. British and American outlets felt differently, of course. When young Norman was featured in a major exposé in a British tabloid, local priests barricaded the bridge into Navan, physically stopped the print trucks from making their deliveries and threw all the copies of the paper into the river. And Ms. O’Shea learned none of this growing up, not least because physical “chastisement” of kids in Irish schools wasn’t banned until the 1980s.

She also knew nothing of how the late Dr. Randles and his wife Mary – a charming interview subject – were furious about how the town’s head priest, Father Andy Farrell, dealt with unmarried women and girls who became pregnant. The precise horror of the Magdalen laundries was not well known at the time due to the stigma and shame around them, but the Randles refused to let the church have everything its own way. Ms. O’Shea was able to find two of the women the Randles helped, and her gentle but firm interview style is a quiet demonstration of how to build a comfortable rapport with your subjects so they feel safe talking with you. There are significant gaps in their stories, unfortunately – not least in that there’s not one word about what their lives were like after the intervention of the Randles but before the start of this documentary – but Ms. O’Shea was focused on letting them be themselves (and being very funny while they’re at it, too) and only sharing as much as they could stand.

This sensitivity extends to the people of Navan who appear on camera to praise Father Farrell as a good man who did tremendous things for the town, such as setting up the credit union and bringing jobs to the area. And Father Farrell did do those things, while simultaneously arranging illegal adoptions, trafficking women into the Magdalen laundries and ensuring the power of the church remained unmolested. (After publicly standing up for himself, 9-year-old Norman was thrown out of his schooling and into an illegal factory job. Ms. O’Shea’s desperately sad interviews with Norman as he is now show how the life of a smart, thoughtful little boy was blighted past repair all those years ago.) Father Farrell is dead, of course, but the ruined lives of so many others remain and “it’s too upsetting to remember any more.” It’s no wonder that, in focusing on the work of the Randles and on how much Ireland has recently changed under the civilizing influence of the European Union, Ms. O’Shea is trying to tell a hopeful story.

How much Irish society has changed is debatable, of course. For example, from October 2022 people who were adopted in Ireland have the legal right to access their own birth certificates, for example. Let’s repeat that. Up until Oct. 3, 2022, it was legal for the Irish state to prevent people from accessing their own birth records. There are thousands of people who have only just been granted the right to know who they are. There are thousands more babies who were illegally sold around the world, who are now adults who don’t know they don’t know who they are. And there are still thousands of people – women, children, babies – who were buried in unmarked graves at the former Magdalen homes, whose deaths have been uninvestigated and for which no one has been held responsible. Ireland recently legalized both gay marriage and abortion in direct defiance of the rules of the Catholic Church, and Irish society is turning its back on organized religion in way unimaginable 60 years ago. But the roots of the church’s power still run very deep, and the resistance to it still has a long way to go. Just look at the title Ms. O’Shea chose. Who are the sinners being referred to? And what would praying for them benefit us?


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