(You can watch "The Silence" here.)
Is healing even possible when you’ve been scarred so heavily (and at such an early age) that the scars are always visible, no matter what you do? “The Silence,” the latest new segment of Frontline, dances around that question. To its credit, it doesn’t turn the ending into a moment of feel-good triumph, where everyone gets on the same page, and the sins of the past are forgiven (as some other news magazines might). But it also stuffs so many incidents and people into its half-hour running time that it can’t help but feel perfunctory. A whole hour in this small Alaskan village might have really underlined the power of those final moments, when people who’ve been hurt badly attempt to move on.
Part of the issue here is that, well, stories of the Catholic sex abuse scandals have become sort of old-hat in the TV news game. I don’t mean to say that the people who suffered at the hands of abusive priests aren’t worth our time or attention, but virtually everybody’s done a take on this, from big screen documentarians to the lowlifes over on Dateline NBC. (My favorite take was probably Kirby Dick’s underrated Twist Of Faith.) I’m trying not to seem like a callous bastard, but, well, there’s only so much that can be done with this story. What happened to those kids was awful, and the church covered it up as long as it could until it was forced to start responding to the accusations.
And the story pretty much follows that arc here, too. But “The Silence” has two things going for it. The first is the setting. St. Michael is a small town, primarily populated by Native Americans and situated on the west coast of Alaska, in a place that’s difficult to get to. The remoteness of the story means that it gains a sense of weird, small town insularity. But it also makes the horrors of the crimes perpetrated on the children here that much worse. Some estimates state that 80 percent of the kids in St. Michael—80 percent!—were abused in a period during the 1970s, when a man named Father George Endal was in charge of the local church and another man, Joseph Lundowski, was a layman training to be a deacon whom Endal apparently went out of his way to protect when he would engage in inappropriate sexual behavior with kids. Lundowski was able to get away with an absolutely heartbreaking amount of abuse, and any time the kids tried to speak up, they were ignored, whether by church officials or by their own parents. (One heartbreaking story comes from a man who draws a direct line between his confession to his father and his brother’s death, at his father’s hand. The connection is tangential, but it’s a good way to show just how much unnecessary guilt these grown adults still carry around.)
The second thing “The Silence” has going for it is its second half, which focuses far less on the particulars of the case—which are horrifying but sadly predictable at this point—and more on the attempts by the church to apologize officially for the actions of those in its employ. The scenes from eight years ago, when Bishop Donald Kettler, of the Fairbanks diocese, attempts to play off Lundowski as a man who didn’t work for the church easily cast him as a villain. (And this comes after the abuse victims had hoped that he might be the person to help them get an official apology from the church.) But the 2010 version of Kettler, who travels to St. Michael to hold a mass and attempt to ask for forgiveness from those who were abused, is… if not exactly contrite at least aware of how much damage people employed by his organization did to innocent children. Kettler’s stumbling his own way toward understanding how deep this horror ran, and unlike other church officials who’ve often seemed to be playing an elaborate shell game designed to hide just how much abusive priests were protected, Kettler really does seem to be wrestling with the fact that these people have been utterly destroyed by what other priests did.
It’s in the scenes at the small meeting between Kettler and the abuse victims that the episode attains a kind of raw, human power. Kettler stumbles through trying to say the right things, but his words are no salve for the amount of tears that flow, the years and years of pain and hurt that have closed these people off from others in their lives. (In at least one case, an abuse victim then turned his own suffering around on his children.) Kettler seems uneasy, for obvious reasons, but he’s at least genuine, and as he blesses the people of St. Michael, a very shallow attempt to ask for forgiveness and hope that these people can find healing, he seems shocked to see this kind of pain in person. When Kettler walks into St Michael, he seems to be doing it just to do what’s politically necessary; when he leaves, he’s shaken.
And what’s interesting is that the episode then turns on whether Kettler’s gesture will be enough to heal the pain. I, of course, was skeptical, but the coda to “The Silence” suggests that there really is some value to what Kettler has done, no matter how minimal. Maybe “The Silence” picks and chooses the people it talks to, but there’s definitely a sense that the abuse victims are trying to accept his words of forgiveness at face value and move on with their lives. I’d love to have Frontline revisit this community in five or 10 years’ time and see what’s really happened, but the end of “The Silence” is immensely cathartic. This won’t be enough to wholly heal anyone in St. Michael, but just the act of asking for forgiveness seems to set some of them on a path toward finding their own kind of inner peace. Endal and Lundowski were monsters; Kettler isn’t wholly innocent, but he’s trying to do the right thing, and the people of St. Michael are gracious for that.
Still, there’s a sense that an hour-long version of this special might have devoted more time to the community of St. Michael and how it’s coped with being the town in the United States with the highest rate of sexual abuse by Catholic priests (percentage wise). With a little more time and a little more of a tight focus, reporter Mark Trahant might have made the moments at the end, where we learn that no priests were prosecuted for the crimes they committed in St. Michael, feel even more searing. (A sidebar story about a radio DJ who was abusing young girls also feels grafted on, with little to show for it.) There’s a great series of scenes here, but they’re seeking a slightly stronger center.
(Note: Frontline filled out the rest of the hour with a report on the cheapening of airlines covered here and watchable here and a report on Chinese human rights champion Ai Weiwei, which we covered here and is watchable here. The magazine format doesn’t work nearly as well for the show as it seems to think it does.)