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By Bob Westal | November 30, 2003

It’s not often that a film changes history, but it’s just possible that Irish writer-director John Deery’s righteously energetic “Conspiracy of Silence” just might help alter the course of 21st century Catholicism.
Openly polemical, the film’s message is as simple as it is radical: mandatory priestly celibacy has no place in the modern church and, in fact, has little or no spiritual basis. Furthermore, this fast-paced political/religious thriller asserts that the conservative forces that prevent change are guilty of vast hypocrisy and worse. And, probably just as incendiary to many, the film refuses to condemn gay priests in romantic relationships. Hot stuff, and not likely to warm the cockles of Mel Gibson’s heart.
The film opens, modestly enough, at the Vatican. An HIV-positive priest (Patrick Lynch) rises during a conference holding a sign that says “the Church has AIDS”. He is immediately hustled out by the papal equivalent of the Secret Service and sent back to Ireland. Later, he blows his brains out in the ultimate act of disrespect to the church and its teachings.
Not long after, priest-in-training Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) is seen exiting the room of a schoolmate. In fact, McLaughlin has closely hewed to his vow of celibacy. Moreover, the incident was no great test of his will-power – he’s devoutly heterosexual. Nevertheless, he is summarily thrown out of the seminary.
This is a gigantic disappointment to Daniel and a source of shame to his parents. Still, it’s not all bad: he is now free to reunite with Sinead (Catherine Walker), the beloved girlfriend he abandoned when took on his priestly calling. Ultimately, though, he still wants to be a priest B and he wants to marry Sinead. Why can’t he do both?
This kind of story is never complete without a crusading journalist. That would be David Foley (Jason Barry), who gets wind of a possible connection between Daniel’s expulsion and the ill priest’s suicide. This leads to a split within the local parish, pitting self-righteous and not entirely scrupulous church leaders against more compassionate voices. But it’s the forces of repression who seem to have the upper hand, and it’s newspaper writer Foley and his young family who find themselves in the clerical crosshairs.
There’s something disarming about any film which is as utterly sincere and clear in its convictions as “Conspiracy of Silence”. And, while it’s not particularly sophisticated filmmaking, John Deery’s first feature is thoroughly engrossing, while avoiding pat answers and cheaply reassuring resolutions. It’s strong stuff, and mightily persuasive. It’s also extremely well acted by a large cast of actors that includes Brenda Fricker of “My Left Foot” and swiftly paced at an economical 87 minutes.
I should probably add here that I am not Catholic. However, judging by a post-screening discussion, nearly everyone else at the screening I attended was either current or former practicing church members who seemed moved and overwhelmingly sympathetic to the film’s message.
Aside from its “ripped from the headlines” entertainment value, American Catholics, largely liberal when it comes to lifestyle matters, should be open to the message of “Conspiracy of Silence.” Heck, in light of the stunning number of molestation scandals and cover-ups we’ve dealt with in the U.S., the idea of a priest wanting to have a consensual, open and committed sexual relationship with a full-grown woman he loves seems incredibly wholesome.

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