Unburying the truth in the Catholic Church

My First Communion took place in May of 1988. We were lined up double-file (boy-girl) outside of All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. It was hot and humid in my navy suit and tie, and my heart was racing. I was a shy, obedient eight-year-old, and I remember being nervous about going into the confessional with a priest to confess my sins for the first time. 

Once it was my turn and I entered the four walls of that confessional, it must have been a relatively unremarkable moment. I can’t tell you the priest’s name, and I can’t tell you any of the sins that I confessed. I can’t tell you whether I sat or stood or kneeled or whether my voice trembled. I know I came out of the confessional and said the assigned prayerful penance and, as I understood it, was therefore forgiven by God. Moments later I was taking communion for the first time: the literal body and blood of Christ. My family was so proud of me. I was proud, too.

Almost thirty years later, I suddenly find myself on the other side of the Catholic Church. A documentary series I directed, The Keepers, investigates the sexual abuse at an all-girls Catholic high school in Baltimore and the unsolved murder of a young nun there. The story begins in a confessional: A girl is confessing about her previous sexual abuse to a priest, and he turns that against her and creates a high-school experience full of horrors and trauma. The series is a convoluted web of secrets, lies, and cover-ups perpetrated by adults against children. The victims, now older adults, continue to struggle with the abuse from their childhoods. They’ve been forced to “keep” the pain and secrets inside of themselves because the world doesn’t want to hear it.

The Catholic boy in me was hopeful the church would respond to the documentary with compassion and transparency. Instead, what we’ve seen is stonewalling and aggression. The Archdiocese of Baltimore repeatedly has called into question the integrity of the documentary, going so far as to call it "fiction." The leaders select which of their internal files they’ll use in a bid to question survivors’ integrity, and yet they refuse to open the records to the public and show what they knew and when. It has been devastating to witness how their comments re-damage the souls they already damaged so long ago.

My experience growing up in the Catholic Church was a positive one. Some of my lifelong friends were made through involvement in youth group, Eucharistic ministry, and mission trips. But the experience of making The Keepers has ripped the blinders off for me. The Catholic Church is a frighteningly powerful institution. And when its leaders have abused that power through child abuse and cover-ups, they’ve been successful in harnessing that power to evade accountability from the government. Justice rarely is served. The victim suffers in silence. The Church keeps its power.

My faith has been shattered, but the greatest gift of making The Keepers has been witnessing a grass-roots community in Baltimore that grew out of nothing to become a formidable movement. It’s a story of people (mostly women, it should be noted) speaking truth to power and saying, “You will no longer silence us.” This community continues to grow and grow every day, and you can feel the profound impact of unburying the truth.

White ’04 also directed PeladaThe Case Against 8, and Good Ol’ Freda.

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