SALEM - Theaward-winning public television series "Frontline" will make its firstforay into the priest sex abuse scandal when it shows a documentarynext month about the abuse of a former Salem altar boy.
On Jan.16, "Frontline" will present "Hand of God," a film by Joseph Cultrera,a New York City filmmaker who grew up in Salem. Cultrera tells thestory of his older brother Paul's abuse by the late Rev. JosephBirmingham, who served at St. James Parish from 1965 to 1970.Birmingham died in 1989.
"I was just knocked out by this film,"said Michael Sullivan, executive producer for special projects at"Frontline," which is produced at WGBH in Boston. "Everyone had thesame reaction - that it was a truly compelling story about the scandaland maybe not unlike a film we would have done ourselves. ... It meetsour mantra of a terrific film that takes you to the heart of a greatissue."
Sullivan, a Marblehead resident, has supervised many "Frontline" projects, including "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero."
Thiswill be the national debut for "Hand of God," which has been shown atfilm festivals around the country and, locally, to packed audiences atCinemaSalem. "Frontline" has an average national television audience ofnearly 6 million.
"We'rethrilled," Joseph Cultrera said. "At the beginning of this process, ifI had to pick a place where I wanted this film to end up that wouldhave been it."
"Hand of God," which is filled with home moviesand scenes from the city's Italian neighborhood, tells about a victimwho conducted his own investigation and who confronted church officialslong before the scandal became a national story.
The film alsofocuses on Cultrera's parents, who still live in Salem, and on theirstruggle of faith after learning of the abuse and, years later, afterthe Archdiocese of Boston closed their parish church, St. Mary'sItalian Church.
Paul Cultrera was 14 in the winter of 1964-65when he made a Saturday confession with Birmingham at St. James Church.For penance, the priest told him to go to the rectory the followingMonday for counseling - beginning a period of abuse that lasted forseveral months.
Cultrera kept the abuse a secret until tellinghis ex-wife in 1990, the start of a long recovery. He later placed aclassified advertisement in newspapers in Salem and other communitieswhere Birmingham had served. "Do you remember Father Birmingham?" readthe ad, which listed a P.O. box. He got nearly 20 responses in a week,including one from someone who said he had been abused by the priest.
Paul Cultrera's investigation led him in 1995 to the front door of the archdiocese - seven years before the scandal broke.
Thefilm includes confrontations with two high-ranking church leaders,Bishop John McCormack of Manchester, N.H., and Bishop Richard Lennon,former interim head of the Boston Archdiocese. McCormack had servedwith Birmingham at St. James.
"I think what clinched the dealfor me was the portrait of arrogance of high clergy in Boston,"Sullivan said. "It was just jaw-dropping. I had never seen it revealedin such stark fashion before. ... In many ways, to me, it was the mostpowerful part of the film."
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