Church Sex Scandal Headed to the Stage

By Martin Finucane
Contra Costa Times [Boston MA]
January 29, 2004

BOSTON - He was cardinal and defendant at the same time, a prince of the church who was questioned by lawyers about a sex abuse scandal among priests.

Now the real-life story of Cardinal Bernard Law's depositions in the Boston Archdiocese clergy sex abuse cases is coming to the stage.

A new play, "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed," to be produced by a small Chicago theater company, uses Law's testimony in a series of depositions for dialogue.

"I think people will leave the theater full of questions, full of comments, full of wanting to discuss it more. To me, that's the best kind of theater ... and that's what this piece can do," said David Zak, artistic director of the Bailiwick Repertory Theater.

The play, written by Michael Murphy, a 46-year-old playwright with several off-off-Broadway shows to his name, is set to open March 1 for a six-week run through mid-April.

The clergy sex abuse cases created a furor in the Catholic church throughout the world and led in December 2002 to Law's resignation as archbishop of the nation's fourth-largest diocese.

Under his successor, the archdiocese reached an $85 million settlement with victims last year.

The deposition testimony by Law brought an exalted leader of the church into a rare high-stakes confrontation with lawyers determined to get justice for their clients.

The main characters in Murphy's play are Law and an attorney for the plaintiffs, who is an amalgam of two of the most prominent lawyers in the clergy abuse cases: Roderick MacLeish Jr. and Mitchell Garabedian. Several other actors speak the roles of about 20 other characters, including Law's attorneys, other church officials, family members and friends of victims, and, in the final speech, a victim.

All the dialogue comes from deposition testimony or documents, such as letters, that were part of the case, Murphy said.

Murphy is not Catholic but had friends who were victims of sex abuse by priests. He was writing a fictional play about the topic when he came across the depositions, which he said he found "riveting."

The idea of basing a play on real events isn't unusual in today's theater world. Murphy points to recent "docu-drama" plays, such as "The Laramie Project," which tells the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who died in October 1998 after he was beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo.; and "The Exonerated," which tells the stories of innocent survivors of death row.

Zak said the play would be staged simply in the 90-seat "studio" of the theater, with just a table and chairs for the deposition participants and the auxiliary characters standing to the side in a spotlight.

The actors, including Jim Sherman as Law, are veterans of Chicago's Off-Loop theater scene.

Murphy wrote about child sex abuse in "The Uninvited Guest," which ran last year at Manhattan's Mint Theater. Some of his other off-off-Broadway plays have drawn inspiration from true stories, such as "The Debating Society," a play about high school shootings, and "The Legendary St. Vincent Design," which was based on a San Francisco drug case.

Murphy said he was more interested in "telling real stories, rather than making up stories."

"The breakdown in our moral fiber in society is what appalls me and fascinates me," he said. "Why are kids shooting each other? Why are priests raping boys? Why are their bosses covering it up?"

He took six months to write the play and consulted with lawyers and friends who had been in depositions to get a better understanding of the interplay involved.

He said that Law in the depositions is "very much a match for these attorneys. He was well-prepared. He was no foolish country priest." But he also said he didn't make any attempt to show another side of Law.

"Defenders of Cardinal Law will feel it's not fair. It is, I think, a reflection of what happened in the deposition," Murphy said.

The Rev. Chris Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, would not comment about the play when contacted by The Associated Press. Cardinal Law, who has been living at a Maryland convent since his resignation but still gets messages through the Boston archbishop's residence, did not respond to several letters faxed by the AP to the residence.

Law was deposed a number of times in 2002 in clergy sex abuse cases before his Dec. 13, 2002, resignation.

Garabedian, who questioned Law on behalf of 86 people who said they had been abused by defrocked priest John Geoghan, said he was curious about the play and might even go see it.

"While the deposition of Bernard Cardinal Law was being taken, it was clear that history was being made. ... I believe that translating the depositions into theatrical form would be fascinating," said Garabedian.

Garabedian had no comment on being part of one of the main characters.

Gary Bergeron, a victim of abuse by the late Rev. Joseph Birmingham, said he thought the play was "an interesting concept."

"I think that anything that helps to raise the public awareness surrounding sexual abuse of children is a good thing. And I hope that, in some way, shape or form, this will be part of that effort," said Bergeron, who attended one of Law's depositions.

Carol McKinley, a Catholic activist who supported Law throughout his tenure as archbishop, took a dimmer view of the play.

"I'm particularly saddened to see, as a supporter of my cardinal, that this will be hurtful to him," she said. She also questioned whether the play might reopen old wounds for the victims.

Zak, the artistic director, said the play was relatively short, a 70-minute piece with no intermission.

The Bailiwick is among a group of Off-Loop small theaters on Chicago's north side. It has been in business more than 20 years.

The theater does a number of gay-oriented productions; it also does mainstream and topical plays. Its production of "Dr. Sex" last year was described by the Chicago Sun-Times as a "wildly clever and playful new musical" based on the life and work of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. That play has been optioned for a possible run on Broadway, Zak said.

Murphy and Zak said various other small theaters around the country have already contacted them about running "Sin," including theaters in Missouri, Washington, Utah and Arizona. The play might also run in Boston, Zak said.

"I hope it will be something that will be seen around the country. ... It literally represents the whole Catholic church experience across the country," he said.


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