By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
VINEYARD HAVEN, Massachusetts — In the face of last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report chronicling seven decades of clergy abuse at the hands of over 300 priests, some church leaders chose silence. Father Edward Beck decided to write.
Fr. Beck, a Passionist priest who also serves as a religion commentator for CNN, wasn’t intending to pen a work of apologetics to defend the Church’s response to the latest wave of the crisis. Yet neither was he willing to cede that things haven’t changed since it erupted in 2002.
Instead, he wanted to capture the tensions of the many parties involved – the victims, survivors, and their families who once again felt betrayed by the latest revelations, the faithful in the pews unsure if they could or should stay put, and the priests forced to account for the sins of their brothers, some of whom have been scapegoated along the way.
The result: A new play, ‘Ungodly Pursuit,’ which is perhaps the first work of art produced by the latest exposés in the Church’s continued reckoning with abuse and cover-up.
Spotlight won the 2016 Oscar for its retelling of the Boston Globe’s newsroom’s indefatigable efforts to unveil decades of abuse. Ungodly Pursuit situates itself instead in the heart of both parish and family life where a mother – who also happens to be a District Attorney – is skeptical of a priest, whom she suspects to be gay and his relationship with her son. Also at play is that priest’s unfounded targeting by a fringe, right-wing Catholic website, all set against the backdrop of the newly released Pennsylvania findings.
The play received a one-night only reading workshop at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse last month with a six-member cast that included stage and screen icon, and one-time Miss America winner, Vanessa Williams.
While Fr. Beck said that other works of his have taken well over a year to craft and finalize, Ungodly Pursuit poured out of him in less than four months’ time.
“It was cathartic,” he told the audience during the performance talk back on August 26.
The audience, some of whom identified themselves as former diocesan employees and Catholic parents, seemed to agree – commending Fr. Beck for producing something that managed to capture both their grief and anguish stemming from the crisis and their frustration that some of the coverage of it has been one-sided and at times seemingly motivated by political ambitions.
Along with Williams, the entire company – Sean Cullen, Christopher Roberts, Paul Munafo, Liam McNeill, and Cristi Andrews – all identified as baptized Catholics, though some noted they no longer attend Mass, specifically citing the abuse crisis as their reason for leaving.
Fr. Beck told The Tablet that he chose theatre as a medium that could allow him to explore his own feelings after the Pennsylvania’s grand jury report was released because it was different than what he could say from the pulpit or even writing pure fiction.
“I wanted people to experience the panoply of emotions from watching something,” he said. “There is an emotional level that art can touch that gets to some of the visceral feelings resulting from the abuse crisis that maybe other media can’t touch in the same way.”
While the play is intended for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, observers of church affairs will find references to prominent, if polarizing, Catholic figures such as the traditionalist Cardinal Raymond Burke, “Uncle Ted,” the nickname of the now disgraced former cardinal of archbishop of D.C. who is accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians and the abuse of minors, and, of course, “the Viganò letter,” where a one-time papal representative to the U.S. called on Pope Francis to resign over the abuse crisis.
Audience members are forced to confront grueling details of past cases of abuse, while also asked to reckon with the fact that fewer than four percent of priests are known to be abusers, a lower statistical average than most other institutions.
“The Church is no different,” says one character in trying to process the reality of sexual abuse. “No, it should have been,” counters another. “That’s its sin.”
Fr. Beck is unsure of what’s next for the play, though he’d like for it to have future readings and productions in either Los Angeles, where the play is set, or his home turf of New York. He also hopes that his play will serve as one contribution for Catholics trying to make sense of both the mess and beauty to be found in the life of faith.
“The horrific will negate the heroic until things change,” one character remarks during the show.
And for Fr. Beck, Ungodly Pursuit is a catalyst to help that change in the Church advance just a bit further.