BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boston's Cardinal Law was called to testify in court this week on the child abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church. The public face of the Church has been battered and bruised as never before. Once, a long time ago, it bore the kindly face of priests like Father Flanagan of Boy's Town.
FATHER FLANAGAN: Our unfortunate children are spiritually sick. We do not attempt to eliminate Yellow Fever by pouring kerosene on the victim. We pour it on the water where the mosquito breeds. Let us stop blaming juveniles for their mistakes and put the responsibility where it belongs -- on parents and society. [APPLAUSE]
FATHER FLANAGAN: I'm Father Flanagan. I saw your brother Joe just a little while ago. We had a long talk about you, Whitey. Joe wants you to come with me to Boy's Town.
WHITEY: If you think you're gonna make a plow-jockey out of me, you got another think coming!
FATHER FLANAGAN: Now look, Whitey -- in a pinch I can be tougher than you are, and I guess maybe this is the pinch. You're coming with me to Boy's Town because that's the way your brother wants it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That second voice was Spencer Tracy's who played him in the movie called Boy's Town. Cardinal Law, on the other hand, would most likely be played by Christopher Plummer in one of his more supercilious modes. Distinctly unspiritual depictions of the Church hierarchy have hit the big screen before. Godfather III told a story of murderous cardinals gunning for the pope, and George Carlin's cardinal in the movie Dogma was consumed by a fatuous concern for good press.
GEORGE CARLIN AS CARDINAL: Fill them pews, people! That's the key! Grab the little ones as well. Hook 'em while they're young.
MAN: Kind of like the tobacco industry.
GEORGE CARLIN AS CARDINAL: Christ! If only we had their numbers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we didn't need a pedophilia scandal to drag the Church down to earth, but it certainly helps. New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley [sp?] has traced that precipitous slide. Welcome to the show.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's go back to the beginning of the story when the local priest was a well-respected anchor in the community and that takes us back to the '30s and the '40s when you had movies like Angels with Dirty Faces starring Pat O'Brien, Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary's -- I call those priests "cuddly," but what else were they?
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Well they were, they were good! I mean they were virtuous in a way that ordinary people aren't. They were chaste, but you felt that if they weren't such virtuous people, romantic sparks could fly. So they were men, but they were super-human men. It was also that the time society as a whole was more in sync with the Catholic Church's teachings. It was the period of anti-Communism. It was also very much a churchgoing ethos.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:One thing that Father O'Malley, Father Flanagan and, and the character played by Pat O'Brien that I can't remember his name had in common is that they worked in cities. They were priests that rolled up their sleeves and, and did the job.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Yes, but as society evolved, so did the portrait of the priests so that by the time you get to On the Waterfront-- you have Father Barry, you know, and he's working with dock workers trying to persuade them to testify against the bad guys, but it's a corrupt world where he doesn't necessarily triumph.
FATHER BARRY: I know you're getting pushed around, but there's one thing we've got in this country and that's ways of fighting back! Now getting the facts to the public - testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong! And what's [righting ??] to them is telling the truth for you! Now can't you see that?
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Just as at that point in society we had al--also understood there were things that couldn't just be fixed with Spencer Tracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that what happened to the Catholic Church in the late '60s was a bit like what the American military experienced when public opinion turned against the Vietnam war. So is this when the tide began to turn?
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Yeah. I think 1968 was actually a watershed year for both the Church and the presidency because for the Church it was when the Church re-affirmed its opposition to birth control, and then suddenly a lot of Catholics began to vehemently disagree, and cardinals, bishops, priests who had always felt that they were unassailable were under attack for church teaching, and that was just a very turbulent time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So Eisenhower gave way to the Vietnam War, and on M*A*S*H, the television show which was putatively about Korea but we all know it was about Vietnam, you had Father Mulcahy -- he was a kindly but ineffectual chaplain. You wrote this week about a new series called The Calling. How does that fit in to all of this?
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: The Church doesn't exist at all in that show. So you go from admirable priests to silly priests to no priests - the, the man - the hero is a Catholic but he is trained to investigate miracles for the Church and when he realizes that the bishops don't really believe in miracles themselves, he goes off on his own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But as you say, you have no priests. Well you, you had no specific religion in the wildly famous Touched by and Angel.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: But that's very American. You know -- don't get cluttered up with denominations, because--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can alienate somebody.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY:You'd alienate somebody on - and also-- this is one of the problems that the Vatican, Rome, has with the American Church. They view American Catholics as essentially Protestant at heart, because they've been raised in a culture where you do question leadership all the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which is why the pope said originally "This is just an American problem -- all this pedophilia."
ALESSANDRA STANLEY:Right! I don't think he -- in their minds --it's not that pedophilia doesn't happen elsewhere. It's that in America people complain and sue.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so in American media the priest is only truly priestly once he's separated himself from the Establishment.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: That's how Rome would see it, and it's kind of true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well I mean but this does fall into a tradition. You have basically "the rogue priest," just like you have "the rogue cop." These are people who are in pursuit of the same goals that their institutions should be in pursuit of but they're not!
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Exactly. But part of it is just the exigies [sic] of entertainment. A priest who does his duty and is tranquil and happy in his job is as boring for television as a happily married couple who have been together and have no problems. What's changed, I think, is that in the old days the challenges of priests like Spencer Tracy were crime - bad people. Now it's the Church that is the obstacle to doing good work, and that's a big difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alessandra Stanley, thank you very much.
ALESSANDRA STANLEY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alessandra Stanley is a reporter for the New York Times. [MUSIC]