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Evil, Sin, or Doubt?: The Dramas of Clerical Child Abuse

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 62, Number 2, May 2010
pp. 245-263 | 10.1353/tj.0.0343



John Patrick Shanley’s popular “well-made play” Doubt: A Parable (2004) uses a conventional structure to provide an unconventional perspective on the question of child abuse in the Catholic Church. Staging the unresolved struggle of a possibly abusive, possibly gay, and certainly liberal priest against an impossibly dogmatic and conservative nun, it confounds the expectations of audiences prepared for straightforward anti-clerical satire. After establishing the cultural context of the scandals, wrestling with the problem of statistics, and laying out the contradictory ideological responses of liberal Catholics, feminists, anti-homophobic theorists, and clerical conservatives, this essay approaches Doubt through interwoven questions about genre and sexuality. It contrasts the play with Amy Berg’s documentary film Deliver Us from Evil (2006) and Michael Murphy’s verbatim drama Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) (2004), two texts that locate responsibility for the scandal primarily in the hierarchy and structure of the Catholic Church and reject the stereotypical association between child abuse and homosexuality. Despite the current vogue for cinematic documentary and documentary theatre, the essay argues that Doubt, the least factual of these three works, is also the most challenging: it permits the audience to imagine a positive relationship between a priest and a queer child. A fictional drama, with its absence of forensic evidence or victim testimony, freedom to embrace contradictions, and dynamically fluctuating engagement with different audiences, may be generically better suited than documentary to perform the ambiguities of this religious and sexual catastrophe.

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