The “deliver us from evil” segment of the Lord’s Prayer has been used as the title of at least five movies, two albums, one song, and two books. It’s an evocative phrase, so it makes sense. The latest movie called Deliver Us from Evil comes out this week, and it’s a hybrid of the horror, crime and “based on a true story” genres. It’s adapted from Beware the Night, a book by NYPD policeman-turned-demonologist Ralph Sarchie, which details his supposed encounters with the paranormal in the course of his police work. How much credibility the viewer lends to Sarchie likely depends on their flavor of religious belief. Regardless of how believable the film is, its reception has not been kind.
So instead, seek out an Oscar-nominated documentary with the same name. This one is about real religion-related acts of evil.
The 2006 Deliver Us from Evil looks at the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal by focusing on the case of one man: Oliver O’Grady, who raped at least 25 Northern California children between the late ’70s and early ’90s in the course of his service as a priest. As both he and his now-grown victims and their families attest, his hideous crimes were never particularly well-hidden. Whenever his offenses came to light, O’Grady’s superiors would hush things up and move him to a different parish. It is a micro view of how institutions work to protect themselves, and how ordinary people are the ones who suffer the consequences.
Director Amy Berg dives into charged, triggering, deeply upsetting subject matter with a will to hold almost nothing back. This is a movie that features not only people recounting their childhood sexual abuse, but also their abuser confessing as to how he approached his prey. The agony of this kind of betrayal is what nonreligious individuals might have difficulty grasping. A priest or pastor serves as an incredibly intimate figure of guidance and trust for any child growing up in their flock. This is a parental figure, role model and spiritual adviser rolled into one, and this level of sexual brutality sends shockwaves not just through children but whole communities. It is, in a way, like God Himself has turned on them. Even decades after the fact, victims still look shell-shocked as they think about it.
This is one of the documentaries where the act of watching it sometimes feels like an intrusion, like you’ve seen something you shouldn’t have. The emotional rawness is almost unbearable. In one scene, the father of a victim angrily wails that there is no God, and he looks and sounds like a wounded animal. Even more uncomfortable is how the movie invites the audience to empathize (not sympathize — that’s an important distinction) with O’Grady, who is himself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Pedophilia is a cycle, and one gets the sense that, at any time, this particular cycle could have been stopped by someone in the position to do so when they learned of O’Grady’s actions. But no one did. The Church was more concerned with its own reputation.
O’Grady’s crimes eventually became public knowledge, and he spent seven years in prison before being deported back to his native Ireland, where he’s remained ever since. In 2012, he was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of child pornography. The Catholic Church still grapples with this issue. But it is no longer the hot-button topic it once was, because our culture has a short-lived memory. Don’t take part in that trend by supporting a movie that valorizes priests via the old trope of exorcism adventures. Watch the nonfiction Deliver Us from Evil, not the fiction. Don’t forget what so many priests have done to who knows how many children. Ignore the bedtime stories about demons.