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Spotlight Report

Repercussions of 'Sin'

Law's words frame gut-wrenching play

By Ed Siegel, Globe Staff, 3/23/2004

CHICAGO -- The lights go up on Cardinal Bernard Law, his back to the audience, kneeling in prayer. It almost seems as if the cardinal himself is onstage until he turns around and it's actor Jim Sherman.

What happens during the next two hours in the play "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed," taken primarily from Law's depositions in the sexual-abuse cases concerning priests John Geoghan and Paul Shanley, is an emotional roller coaster.

Actors playing lawyers Mitchell Garabedian in the Geoghan case and Roderick MacLeish Jr. in the Shanley case grill the cardinal, and his denials of any culpability elicit frequent gasps from the audience. The readings from depositions and interviews, which detail the stories of victims and the lack of a response from Church officials, leave some people in tears.

Even the actors themselves are spent at the play's end, which is regularly followed by a discussion between them and the audience. Last Wednesday, when asked if he tried to identify with Law, Sherman said he tries to find more than one dimension to the cardinal but noted how difficult it is to identify with him.

"I've raised seven children," he said, "and I think I would want to kill someone who did something like this to them. I'm playing the guy who has the responsibility for letting this go on." He then began to choke up before adding, "And it's tough. And I've had a lot of sleepless nights about it."

When the Bailiwick Repertory production of Michael Murphy's "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed" comes to Wellesley College May 15-22, there will be debates about how good a play it is. There will be cavils about Cardinal Law speaking with a Chicago accent. And it may not play nearly as well in Wellesley's 1,300-seat auditorium as it does in Bailiwick's 60-seat house. Still, it is hard to imagine that most people won't be moved by what they see. This may seem strange, given that Law's words and those of the lawyers are taken almost entirely from the public record, which can be rather dry. During the first act, in particular, Garabedian spends a fair amount of time laying the groundwork for later questions.

Garabedian himself went to see the play two Saturdays ago and stayed for the post-performance discussion. Like many who have attended these talks (which will be incorporated into the Wellesley performances), Garabedian was struck by how emotional the audience was after the play.

"Because the statement at the end of the play made by the actor playing [victim] Patrick McSorley was so powerful, a woman came up to me and asked me how Patrick was doing," he said. "I had to inform her that Patrick had passed away. She was floored. It was a very powerful moment which I'll never forget. She was shocked. I held her."

Others have reported similar experiences. Laura Breault, who has been active on behalf of those claiming they were abused by priests in the Boston archdiocese, went out to see the play a couple of weeks ago. "Some people in the audience gasped, and the actors later said they thought something had happened in the audience," she said. "But it was just Law's testimony. It was a real vindication of all the survivors' anger and tears. It was evident to the audience that the church hierarchy knew what was happening."

"Sin: A Cardinal Deposed" is not a courtroom drama in the traditional sense of "Inherit the Wind," which invents characters and testimony to fit the author's point of view and dramatic arc. It follows in the footsteps of works such as Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," which mixes together actual courtroom testimony and interviews with other parties.

Murphy also cites the work of Anna Deavere Smith, who plays a variety of characters herself in the issue-oriented plays she's written about the Crown Heights riot in New York and the Los Angeles riots following the beating of Rodney King.

Even those familiar with the facts of the sexual-abuse stories, who have experienced their own sense of outrage over the cardinal's or the church's response to clergy sexual abuse, can find themselves moved by this kind of a theatrical experience.

"What plays like these do is give dramatic shape to events that we can't see when they happen in real time," said Alan Brody, associate provost for the arts and professor of theater at MIT. "But after the fact, it gives shape to issues in dramatic form that allows us to contemplate them in whole other ways and to experience them emotionally in whole other ways. The immediacy of a communal audience watching a live event reconstructed like that can be a very powerful thing. And the constraints of time and space that the theater creates gives it a poetic dimension."

One audience member, fighting back tears throughout the performance, particularly during the testimony of those claiming they had been abused by Shanley or Geoghan, said in last Wednesday's discussion that the same thing had happened to him in Chicago and that no one in that archdiocese would listen to him.

Although all the words are taken from public statements and from letters, the play hardly lacks a point of view. By giving the last word to McSorley and by portraying MacLeish, in particular, as impassioned and heroic and Law as frazzled and obfuscating, Murphy has clearly ordered the material in a pointed manner.

At one point toward the end of the play, for example, MacLeish comes over to Law, kneels down beside him, and asks him in a hectoring, almost tearful manner, "Can you identify one priest who had allegations of sexual molestation against him who was removed from parish ministry at this time -- one priest?" The cardinal, head down, replies, "I don't believe that there are any."

MacLeish was not available to comment on this portrayal of him, but Bob Sherman, co-lead attorney with MacLeish for the Greenberg Traurig law firm, said it didn't happen that way. The cardinal, Sherman said, "was treated with the respect his office demands. We sat across the table from him. He was between his lawyers, and there was no direct contact." Both Sherman and Garabedian, however, acknowledge that there needs to be room for some dramatic license in a theatrical presentation of the depositions.

Asked for the archdiocese's reaction to the play, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman, said that archdiocese policy is to refrain from commenting about plays and movies.

That said, neither the play nor the portrayal is totally unsympathetic to Law. In the play, he obviously cares deeply about Catholic tenets of forgiveness and absolution. Sherman does not portray Law as a monster; his flaws are all too human. He did what many of us do -- he listened to what he wanted to hear and dismissed what was more troubling.

However, there is no absolution in the play for Law, who in the end cared more about his fellow priests than about their victims. "The archdiocese has a lot to explain," said Murphy. "Many of these victims and families have lost their belief in God, which is an awful thing to take away from somebody."

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.


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