THE LEAST OF THESE. Starring Isiah Washington, Robert Loggia and Bob Gunton. Directed by Nathan Scoggins.
A film which received little cinema release (strange, given its talked-about topic) but has gained wider audiences through DVD and television screenings.
It is often advertised that a film is taken from today’s headlines. This could be said of The Least of These. And, for those who immediately recognise Jesus’ words about children and about scandal, they would realise that we are in the drama of sexual abuse. While this is a rather melodramatic treatment of a number of related themes as well, it is not without interest, given the contemporary climate on the issue.
It seems to be set in a Catholic school and viewers have interpreted it that way. However, the school and the chapel do not have any Catholic pictures, statues or iconic props and the final credits indicate that there was some strong Lutheran input into the making of the film. Be that as it may, it is still a relevant story, with violent implications which makes one realise that such vengeance against a priest abuser has not been the order of the day.
A young priest, Fr Andre (Isaiah Washington) who had been a student at the school, comes back to join the staff after being absent from the diocese (Colorado) for two years. His predecessor has disappeared. Andre is welcomed by the priest rector of the school (Robert Loggia), is treated warily by the disciplinarian (Bob Gunton) and in a friendly way by the other priest on the staff (John Billingsley). The boys are another matter, typical of boarders at any school, nominally religious but mainly not, while conforming to the rules of the school. Andre manages to settle in, dealing with the priests, trying to assess and relate to the boys, puzzling about the disappearance of Fr Collins. A rich boy, Jason Boyd (Andrew Lawrence) who is a champion at sport is quite hostile, especially when Fr Andre, who reaches religion and has a great belief in prayer, asks the boys to compose their own and he parodies the Lord’s Prayer. There is another reclusive boy who spends a lot of time in the chapel and is wary of talking.
We soon realise that he is one student who has been abused. Some of the boys search sealed off basement offices and it soon emerges that Fr Collins has been killed and the quiet boy is under suspicion. The media, needless to say, make a great deal out of the case, filming Fr Andre trying to put them off, then raising accusing suspicions about his behaviour. The audience shares in a number of discussions amongst the priests and how the situation should be handled.
Unless we have been involved personally with a victim of clerical sexual abuse, we are influenced by media headlines, articles, television and radio programs. It is helpful, even if hard, to see the issues dramatised. The plot here has a few unexpected twists which makes the abuse by Fr Collins more harrowing, his murder comprehensible and the cover-up alarming. Fr Andre’s life is also more complicated – suffice to say that he had been a whistleblower on a former case, with a close friend suspended and hounded, only to discover that the whole affair had been fabricated by a child and parents. This sub-plot offer s a sobering reminder of different scenarios in different cases.
Isaiah Washington brings quite some dignity and presence to the character of Fr Andre. The three other priests are seen in different lights by the end of the film.
Not a great film by any means, but one which is watchable and throws dramatic (and melodramatic) light on scandals which have revealed more victims than one would have realised, more perpetrators than one would have ever imagined and a call for churches, religions and secular society and institutions to examine their consciences.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting