Summary: In the 2008 motion picture drama “Doubt,” Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a priest suspected of sexually molesting an altar boy. The film contrasts a strict Mother Superior named Aloysius (Meryl Streep) with a youthfully optimistic nun named Sister James (Amy Adams). In a powerful and critical scene, Aloysius speaks to the boy’s mother (Viola Davis) about exposing the priest.
Why this is The BEST: Though the film never arrives at an explicit conclusion regarding what happened between the priest and the boy, it insightfully captures how abuse occurs. The priest selects a vulnerable boy, the only black child in the school, and the son of an abusive father. Naturally, the boy is thrilled to receive Father Flynn’s attention and protection. A mother, desperate for her son to get into a good high school and have a better chance in life, will suffer almost anything to keep that possibility alive. Anyone who does not understand why families of an abused child do not automatically go to the police should watch this film. (Though she only appears in this one scene, Davis received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.)
The film depicts how the Catholic Church avoided dealing with these issues for years. The accusation forces Father Flynn’s transfer to a more prestigious pulpit. Authoritarian structures ease cover-ups. According to Church policy, Aloysius, who suspects Flynn, should contact the priest from his previous parish and not any of its nuns. The old boy network protects wayward priests.
The Jewish community is not immune from this scourge. The processes of selecting and grooming victims, cover-ups in misguided attempts to protect institutions, and an inability to deal with this on a communal level transcend social and religious divides.
The film impresses from an artistic perspective. While the visual medium of film encourages action, this movie consists almost entirely of dialogue (it was based on a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play). I was reminded of Twelve Angry Men, although here the protagonists do leave the room. The camera tells a story in how it captures these interactions. In one case, it contrasts the frivolous and joyous tone at a meal of priests against the somber and serious atmosphere as nuns gather to eat.
Finally, the conflict between the two nuns provides interest. Whose educational approach is correct, stern Aloysius or smiling James? Are Aloysius’ suspicions justified or should we feel drawn to the view of the younger James wanting to believe in Flynn’s innocence? In the end, Aloysius confesses her doubts to James. Some reviewers think she doubts Flynn’s guilt, but perhaps she doubts the Church (and God) having seen their approach to abuse. Indeed, the strongest argument for religion might be a religious life that leads to refined ethical excellence. When it does the opposite, religion engenders doubt.
Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION, and edited our special issue on sexual abuse in the Orthodox community (Spring 2017). Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.