The first criminal conviction of a French bishop since the French Revolution occurred 18 years ago. In 2001, Bishop Pierre Pican of the Diocese of Bayeux was convicted of failing to report charges of clerical sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities and received a suspended three-month sentence.
That was the same year The Boston Globe ran its groundbreaking “Spotlight” investigative coverage of clerical sex abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up culture in the Archdiocese of Boston. It was also the year Pope St. John Paul II promulgated new norms regarding the handling of clerical sexual abuse and other serious crimes.
Nine years later, in 2010, a damning glimpse of the extent of the culture of silence and complicity in the Church came to light when a Catholic magazine based in Lyon revealed that after his 2001 conviction Bishop Pican received a letter of congratulations from the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos of Colombia, praising him for risking prosecution and prison rather than turning over a priest to civil authorities.
That same week in 2010 the Vatican website added an introductory guide to Vatican policies dealing with sexual-abuse allegations, with a previously unseen stipulation: “Civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed.”
How much has or has not changed in the last decade or two?
Writer-director François Ozon’s raw yet restrained By the Grace of God (the French title, Grâce à Dieu, has the sense of “Thanks to God”) has been inevitably if not entirely accurately labeled a “French Spotlight.”
Based on a true story still unfolding in Lyon, the birthplace of French Christianity, the film’s subject is not an investigation but a grassroots campaign by now-adult victims of a charismatic predator priest seeking action against their abuser from a highly respected archbishop.
The film is also an insightful, at times wrenching exploration of the enduring trauma and fallout in each of their lives and the lives of those around them — and how the harm is ameliorated or perpetuated by the responses of family members as well as of Church authorities, both at the time and in the long run.
In March of this year, Lyon’s Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was convicted of failing to report sexual-abuse allegations against a popular priest, Father Bernard Preynat, dating from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Cardinal Barbarin is just the third French bishop to be convicted and the first cardinal.
The cardinal, who is appealing, received a suspended sentence of six months. He submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, who rejected it pending the outcome of the appeal, but allowed Cardinal Barbarin to cede leadership of the archdiocese to an administrator while retaining the title of archbishop.
Facing allegations from scores of alleged victims, Father Preynat was suspended in 2015 and laicized in July. He is awaiting trial on criminal charges, although the statute of limitations has expired for most of the allegations.
By the Grace of God opens with a striking two-shot prologue depicting Barbarin (François Marthouret) oddly placing a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament on a parapet of the cathedral overlooking Lyon. (Are there worshippers below? Eucharistic exposition requires the presence of adorers. It seems an odd place for exposition in any case, not least because of the danger of wind.)
In any case, the opening establishes the scope of the cardinal’s office, the number of lives potentially affected by his actions, and the divine authority he represents. It could also be taken to suggest that the Lord himself, not just the cardinal, looks over his people.
The film unfolds more or less in three acts, each focusing on one of three victims, all former Boy Scouts who attended St. Luc summer camp with Father Preynat.
It opens quietly but without preamble, as devout Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a Lyon banking professional raising five children in the faith with his wife, Marie (Aurélia Petit), introduces himself in first-person voice-over narration that reveals itself to be the text of a letter — the first of several — to Barbarin after learning that Preynat has recently returned to the area and continues working with children.
Alexandre’s dogged pursuit of the issue draws the attention of François (Denis Ménochet), a volatile atheist living in rural Beaujolais with his wife, Hélène (Odile Debord), and their two daughters. Though initially reluctant to involve himself or his family, François gradually becomes increasingly outraged and galvanized into action, eventually creating a website and an organization called Lift the Burden of Silence (La Parole Libérée, literally “Free the Word” or “Liberate the Discussion”).
The third survivor, Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), is a more marginal figure who becomes involved after a Lift the Burden news conference. Gaunt, unemployed and living with his girlfriend (herself a victim of sexual assault), Emmanuel seems crushed by the weight of trauma that Alexandre and François have learned to cope with, but finds in their relationship and activism a form of community and even of therapy.
Each of these stories continues to be about families of origin, as well as what family these men have formed as adults.
Alexandre, the believer, is trying to be the vigilant adult and parent his own parents weren’t at the time. His frankness with his children about what he suffered, aided by his wife Marie’s prodding, is a conscious reaction against his parents, who, infuriatingly, still seem not to want to hear about it and think he’s just stirring up trouble.
François’s parents, by contrast, were quick to recognize what was happening and to act appropriately. Thanks to them, the summer camp was shut down. Yet the wounds inflicted by this chapter include a lasting rift between François and his older brother, who struggles with resentment over the extent to which the family’s emotional energy was consumed by François’ issues.
Then there’s Emmanuel’s mother, Irène (Josiane Balasko), a woman doing her best to support a son whose overwhelming problems are beyond her. Emmanuel is a prodigy — a “zebra,” he calls himself in French jargon — and communication between this mother and her wounded zebra is limited, but she does what she can for him.
If all of these family dynamics are instantly recognizable and persuasive, the ecclesiastical culture portrayed is queasily no less credible.
Much of the first act unfolds in epistolary voice-over as letters are exchanged between Alexandre and Barbarin or Barbarin’s volunteer psychologist and theologian, an octogenarian named Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). (The film uses the real names of Régine Maire, who was accused along with Barbarin, as well other Church officers; the surnames of some of the victims have been changed.)
Barbarin’s voice, rich and resonant, conveys frankness and warm concern. Maire, white-haired and bespectacled, is professional but empathic. Both invite confidence and hope, yet each interaction seems to end with no clear path forward.
Alexandre has enough trust in them both to agree to a meeting with his abuser (Bernard Verley), who readily acknowledges the truth of Alexandre’s charges. But the meeting is subverted by conflicting expectations. Maire wants Preynat to ask forgiveness and hopes the encounter will help Alexandre find peace. The only resolution Alexandre is interested in, of course, is the expulsion of Preynat from the priesthood.
This single crucial scene with the elderly Preynat (a younger Preynat is seen in a number of brief childhood flashbacks that the survivors carry with them) is a sickeningly incisive portrait of narcissism and abuse of power.
Amicable, relaxed, Preynat approaches Alexandre and extends his hand, which Alexandre reflexively shakes, and chats with him about his work and family. The priest shows some shame in admitting his actions, but his own pain looms larger than the pain he caused. Then he takes Alexandre’s hand again for a closing Our Father — and, in a twisted power move, tacks on a Hail Mary while gripping Alexandre’s hand tightly.
What makes the portrait of Preynat so effective is that while he’s a monster, you also see how this guy won the confidence and respect of parents and parishioners, how he groomed not only children but a whole community. Indeed, Alexandre’s parents are still somewhat under his sway.
Barbarin is not a monster. He appears genuine in his condemnation of child abuse and in his self-image as a reformer. But he seems more interested in managing the Preynat case than in taking decisive action until public attention forces his hand, and he has odd quirks like resisting the term “pedophile” on specious etymological grounds (surely, he says, “pedosexual” would be less inaccurate than a term that only means love of children).
Barbarin and his underlings, with what they consider the best of intentions, embody the cultural pathologies outlined by the Catholic writer Russell Shaw, former communications director for the U.S. bishops, in his 2008 book Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and the Catholic Church: spin, stonewalling, happy talk, defaulting to secrecy rather than transparency, and concern for appearances over accountability.
Are Catholic power structures capable of thoroughgoing self-reform? The longer the question goes without a decisive answer, the less in practical terms the answer will matter. Sooner or later, district attorneys, attorneys general, grand juries and other state actors will do whatever Church authorities are unwilling or unable to do for themselves.
Near the end comes a moment when Alexandre is asked whether he still believes in God. The scene cuts from a complex reaction shot, the question left unanswered. The point, I think, is neither to affirm faith nor to deny it, but to highlight the stakes. By their action or inaction Church leaders make God more credible or less credible, instill faith or shatter it.
The film’s last shot inverts the prologue, looking up from the streets of Lyon to the cathedral on a hill: We began with Barbarin on a parapet overlooking the city; we end among the people of the city looking up at the church. The hierarchy are on notice: The world is watching.
Caveat Spectator: Several graphic descriptions of clerical sex abuse of boys; references to a genital deformity; brief partial female nudity; brief domestic violence; some harsh language. Mature viewing.