KIRBY DICK: IN PURSUIT OF A PEDOPHILE PRIEST

Few subjects can generate a level of anger and fury as pedophilia, yet documenting the damage done by sexually abusive adults is clearly a difficult situation. There is the obvious concern of turning the victims’ story into a sensationalist work which dilutes the tragic emotions surrounding the assault. And there is also the genuine need to curb one’s anger against the sexual predators and present the story of their crimes with maturity and focus.

Documentary filmmaker, Kirby Dick, achieved the rare sense of balance and power in his latest film, Twist of Faith. This feature details the campaign brought by Tony Comes, a firefighter in Toledo, Ohio, against an ex-priest named Dennis Gray who abused Comes during his childhood. Comes’ struggle to address the pain he suffered in silence for years is an extraordinary story to watch. Indeed, Dick earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for this production.

Film Threat caught up with Dick as he was preparing for the film’s New York theatrical premiere, which took place on July 1.

How did you make “Twist of Faith” without running the risk of becoming intrusive, insensitive or sensationalist to your subject’s pain and anguish? I have made a number of films about people’s experience with deep personal trauma, but I have never encountered trauma this profound. I spoke with many survivors over the course of making the film, and each time you would bring up the subject of their abuse, you would see tears well up in their eyes. Often they would cry as they recounted their experiences, even though they had happened decades ago. It was apparent that these events in their lives were something that they hadn’t gotten over, and probably in many ways never would.

I think the most important response to these survivors was to just listen. These experiences had haunted them for so long that the opportunity to speak to me, and thereby to an audience, and present their experiences was both freeing and a vindication for them. Often, in the past the veracity of their stories or their motivation for coming forward had been questioned. People in their community and their parish didn’t initially believe them. And many of them, like Tony, who went to their Bishop, or another trusted figure in their church, were lied to. Tony in particular was told by his Bishop that this was the first time the Bishop had heard that anyone had accused Tony’s abuser of sex abuse, even though the bishop definitely had known for years of several other accusations and probably many more.

Has there been any official reaction from the Roman Catholic hierarchy to your film? And has the Catholic press reviewed it, or even mentioned it?
The Catholic News Service has reviewed the film, and posted it on the U.S. Conference for Catholic Bishops Web Site. They called the film “achingly poignant” and “troubling” and said “what gives the film such pathos is that, though Comes’ faith in the church has been tested to the breaking pointed and he tirelessly seems to be railing against it” the church remains the focal point of his life.” It has also been shown in the Catholic Film Festival, in Phoenix, Arizona, where the presentation of the film in a church was followed by Saturday evening mass.

No bishops or cardinals have yet responded to the film, although it would be wonderful if they would embrace it as an important step in conveying the psychological damage of sex abuse. Unfortunately, I don’t think they will. Rather, I think they will respond to the film in much the same way they have responded to the crisis around the country – by acting as if it isn’t so significant of a problem and hoping the whole issue will disappear.

How much footage was shot during the course of production? And what footage did not make it into the final cut?
We had several hundred hours of footage from a wide variety of sources. We shot over a one and a half year period. My producer, Eddie Schmidt, and I would fly into Toledo for a week about every six weeks. When we left after the first shoot, we left a home video DV camera for Tony and his wife Wendy to shoot with while we were gone. This footage shot by them makes the film quite intimate and powerful. They would use it in situations where it was impossible to record with a film crew.

For example, survivors often wake up in the middle of the night wracked by recurring nightmares of their abuse. Afterwards, they are up for hours, remembering what had happened to them. It was in those early hours in the morning that Tony would take the camera and speak into it about everything he was going through.

What is Tony Comes doing today? And how did he react to the film?
Tony is still a fireman in Toledo, Ohio. Although the film chronicles how coming forward and confronting the Catholic church almost destroyed Tony psychologically, and nearly tore apart his marriage, he and Wendy are still together. In fact, the film has helped Tony by allowing him to direct his rage towards something positive. He is now actively working with survivor’s groups in Ohio to get the Statute of Limitations laws changed.

Currently, if you are abused as a child in Ohio, you only have up until age 20 to file a civil claim. Unfortunately, most child abuse victims have been so traumatized that they often are unable to tell anyone about what happened until they are much older. The new law would allow a survivor to have 20 years past the age of 18 to file a civil claim, as well as opening up a one year look-back window for older cases. Not surprisingly, the Catholic bishops in the state of Ohio are fighting this legislation as hard as they can. This is just one more example of the church responding in an aggressive rather than in a caring way to survivors.

Where is Dennis Gray, the pedophile ex-priest? Do you know if he saw the film?
Dennis Gray lives in a new house in a suburb of Toledo, within 10 miles of Tony and his family. As part of the settlement, all existing lawsuits were dropped against him. However, since the film premiered at Sundance, we have heard about new allegations against him, as well as several other priests in the Toledo diocese. As far as I know, Dennis Gray has not yet seen the film.

“Twist of Faith” achieved something that many filmmakers ache to achieve: a premiere at Sundance. What was your strategy for getting the film into Sundance?
“Twist of Faith” is the fourth film I have made that was invited to Sundance as part of the Documentary Competition. The previous films of mine that went to Sundace were Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist, Chain Camera and Derrida.

What was your festival strategy for this film? To date, where has it played? And have any festivals turned it down?
We premiered the film at Sundance. While at Sundance, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. After that, we played quite a few major US festivals during the spring, including the Seattle and Los Angeles Film Festivals. The film will premiere on HBO on June 28 at 10 PM. It will then open theatrically across the country, beginning in New York at the Quad Cinema from July 1 –14. It will be opening in San Francisco at the Roxie Cinema on July 1, and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall on July 22. From there it will go into a release around the country.

You’ve probably been asked this endlessly, but here we go anyway: what is it like to be nominated for an Academy Award? And did you suffer Joan Rivers on the red carpet?
My producer and I were very honored to be nominated for an Academy Award, and especially pleased because of the attention it will bring to this very important issue. Clergy sexual abuse has been a problem in the church for hundreds of years. We are hopeful that this film, and the attention that has been brought to it, will contribute in some small way to helping this problem finally be addressed.

I did not encounter Joan on the Red Carpet, but that experience of walking the carpet was very surreal. The red carpet seemed at least 75 yards long, and you walk it quite slowly, surrounded by stars. There was a bank about ten deep of rabid movie fans along one side of the carpet, and each time a new star would enter they would erupt in a roar. On the other side was a bank six deep and 75 yards long of moving and still photographers, all ravenously clamoring for poses from the stars. Once inside, one nice perk was that after your category was announced you could walk out of the auditorium and go straight to the bar and down some free drinks with the other losers.




Posted on July 5, 2005 in Interviews by

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