NEW YORK (CNS) — The recent Vatican summit on clergy sexual abuse called for more urgent, concrete and specific action to manifest the church’s unequivocal commitment to zero tolerance. The scandalous revelations that preceded — and necessitated — that unprecedented gathering make the Netflix docuseries “Examination of Conscience” all-too timely.
The unsettling but important and powerful three-hour film is currently streaming in Spanish, with English subtitles. Written and directed by Albert Sole, “Examination of Conscience” investigates sexual abuse in Spain’s Catholic schools, seminaries and summer camps. Notably, Sole doesn’t limit his scrutiny to transgressors among the clergy, but also explores abuse by lay employees.
Sole utilizes dramatic re-enactments, contemporary video, still photographs and archival film footage to amplify the story of the horrific violation of children by people employed to protect, nurture and edify them. But it’s the statements of survivors — and, in one remarkably exceptional instance, an abuser — that most vitally inform “Examination of Conscience.”
In the series’ quietly immersive prologue, 36-year-old child psychologist Miguel Hurtado decides to confront Benedictine monk Andreu Soler. Two decades ago, Soler abused Hurtado while the latter was part of the scouting program Soler ran in the 1990s in the Montserrat mountain range of Spain’s Catalonia region.
Raised a staunch Catholic, Hurtado, an emigre to Britain who has been living in London for six years, once considered entering the priesthood. But after Soler victimized him, Hurtado says, “My world collapsed. My belief system crumbled. I was left rudderless. And then, from the ruins, I had to rebuild my life plan.”
In doing so, this affable, thoughtful — though understandably intense — mental health practitioner became an activist on behalf of his fellow survivors. His quest to connect with them shapes his narrative.
Thus we’re introduced to the story of Emiliano Alvarez. When Alvarez, who’s now in his 50s, was a student at La Baneza seminary in northern Spain in the 1970s, he, like many others, fell prey to one of the instructors there, pederast Jose Manuel Ramos Gordon.
By day, Alvarez explains, Gordon possessed “the face of a good guy, the perfect saint.” At night, however, the blonde cleric turned into a “demon,” prowling for adolescent boys to molest. By Alvarez’s estimate, of the 80 students in the school’s dormitory, only 20 were left untouched.
In a series replete with memorable moments, Alvarez’s confrontation with his abuser may impress viewers most enduringly. Meeting Gordon on the street outside his home, Alvarez says: “After all that, my life was nothing more than drugs and trouble, Mr. Angel.”
In response, Gordon, until recently a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Astorga, behaves as if he’s suffering from amnesia where the grievous pain he inflicted on his former student is concerned. It’s an attitude that will trouble, madden and perhaps astonish the audience.
“Examination of Conscience” occasionally features some strong language, though this doesn’t register as at all gratuitous, given the context. And substance abuse and suicide are necessarily prominent themes. Add to these elements the program’s candid discussions of graphic sexual matters, and it becomes clear that the show is most appropriate for adults.
By contrast with the celebrated, Academy Award-winning 2015 film “Spotlight,” which focused on the shoe-leather journalism that revealed the sexual abuse cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston, “Examination of Conscience” concentrates on survivors and their moving, articulate testimony. But Sole succeeds in going even further, bravely adding the reflections of an offender as well.
Joaquin Benitez used his former position as a physical education teacher at Les Corts, a Barcelona high school run by the Marist brothers, to abuse several boys. His comments on his own wrongdoing may help viewers better understand what drives people to commit such sinful crimes. And comprehending pedophiles’ motivation may help the church better prevent predatory behavior.
The film’s generally fair-minded approach breaks down briefly with the appearance of psychologist Pepe Rodriguez, who sweepingly asserts: “Every case around the world is structured identically. Bishops cover it up the same way.”
Such a statement not only over generalizes a global phenomenon but ignores the genuine progress that has been made in combating the problem.
Overall, though, “Examination of Conscience” offers an outstanding and eloquent examination of a profoundly disturbing topic. The program may make for uncomfortable viewing, especially for faithful Catholics. But the subject it explores can only benefit from being exposed, however belatedly, to the light of day.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.