When a member of my youth group suggested that we watch the movie ‘Doubt‘, I found myself somewhat skeptical. I was expecting the sort of movie that gets its jollies from bashing the Catholic church; ‘It probably has a strict conservative priest who turns out to be a paedophile’, I thought to myself.

Well, paedophilia is indeed a theme in the movie, but the strict conservative turns out to be the nun who is hunting the (alleged) paedophile, and her character is probably the least sympathetic (although perhaps also the most interesting) in the movie. Superbly played by Meryl Streep, Sister Aloysius is the principal of a parochial school in the Bronx in 1964 (the date is identified precisely by one of the characters, who refers to the assassination of President Kennedy ‘last year’). Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is one of the parish clergy, a man who wants to move the Church toward a more open and sympathetic stance and who tries to build warm relationships with the children at the school. It is he who is accused of an ‘improper relationship’ with a young black altar boy, and the question of his guilt or innocence dominates the movie. Despite his profferred explanation of the circumstances, Sister Aloysius refuses to believe in his innocence, and eventually succeeds in driving him from the school. But the question of his actual guilt or innocence remains open at the end of the movie where, in a final scene, Sister Aloysius reveals to young Sister James (Amy Adams) that, despite her apparent absolute certainty (about faith in general and about Father Flynn’s guilt in particular), she is in fact plagued by doubts herself.

This movie raises all sorts of issues. The protection of children from potential abusers is such an urgent imperative, but does this mean that mere suspicion, with no hard evidence, should be enough to remove the suspect from his position? And might the preferred explanations that sound so convenient (and so well thought through) actually be true? Is Sister Aloysius’ obsessive and inquisitorial determination to ‘bring Father Flynn down’ an appropriate response to the supposed risk she believes that he represents to her students? Or is it a witch hunt which eventually punishes an innocent man? Are Father Flynn and his (male) superiors employing the all-too-familiar strategy, so often used by the Church in these situations in the not-too-distant past, of covering up the truth and moving the offender on to a new position without addressing the issue of his (alleged) behaviour? Or is he in fact telling the truth about the nature of his relationship with the young altar boy?

Father Flynn comes across initially as a warm and genial man who spends time with the young people in the school, invites groups of boys over to his rectory for conversations, tells engaging stories in his homilies at mass, advocates a more relaxed attitude to the children, and is not afraid to hug a young black boy whose books have been trashed in the school hallway even though he has already been accused of an improper relationship with the boy. Is Father Flynn right? Is this an appropriate way to minister in the modern age? Or does Father Flynn not understand the importance of proper boundaries – his own, and other people’s?

As I watched the movie I found myself thinking about my own ministerial practice. When I first started out as a parish minister in 1979, I thought nothing of going to visit women alone in their homes during the day; it was a normal part of pastoral ministry and a good way of creating space for honest conversation and the addressing of important issues. Nor did anyone in my parish see anything wrong with such visits. Nowadays, in the wake of widespread suspicion in society as a whole, and frequent lawsuits and accusations against clergy, I find myself much more reluctant to do this sort of visiting; I’m far more likely to suggest to a woman that we meet for coffee or lunch in a public place, or that she meet me in my office while the secretary is in the building. And there’s a price to be paid for this approach; conversations in public places are far less open and honest, and self-consciousness so easily becomes a barrier to a true expression of thoughts and feelings. Yes, something has been gained, but something important has been lost too.

I remember my father leading family services in the 1970s in a church full of children; when one of them ran to the front, Dad would scoop them up and give them hugs. Nowadays schools have policies forbidding teachers from hugging or even touching their students, and I know many clergy follow the same rules. Personally, I love hugging the kids in my parish, and I find that most of them respond well to this approach. Is this wrong? Should parents be suspicious of my motives?

Suffice it to say that I found this a compelling and somewhat disturbing movie, and I’m glad I watched it. I’d give this one eight out of ten.