Film: By the Grace of God

  • Jo Siedlecka

A heartbreaking film about the sexual abuse of children by one Catholic priest in France, and the patient efforts of his victims to seek justice. The canon of films on this subject from countries around the world continues to grow. Earlier this year there was the documentary 'Tell No One' by Polish director Tomasz Sekielski. Now we have 'By the Grace of God' - a soberly-told docudrama from French director Francois Ozon.

This film tells the true story of Alexandre Guérin, (Melvil Poupaud) a committed Catholic who lives with his wife and children in Lyon. One day he discovers by chance that a priest, Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley) who abused him when he was a boy scout, is still alive and still working with young people. Long repressed frightening memories, shown in flashback, are awakened. Horrified, Alexandre writes to Cardinal Philipe Barbarin, confident that he will sort the matter out. But the diocese doesn't seem to be in a hurry to respond.

Eventually they agree to set up a face-to-face meeting with Alexandre, Preynat, and an insipid archdiocesan lady employee, Régine Maire (Martine Erhel). Alexandre, his wife and friends fear and assume Preynat will deny what happened. They are surprised when he doesn't. Like the priest in the Polish film 'Tell No One', Preynat quietly admits everything. But then, in a cringe-making scene, Ms Maire encourages the pair to hold hands and pray together.

Alexandre asks Preynat to make his confession public. But the old priest refuses because he says he's afraid he might be attacked as he has been before "by violent, hysterical" parents. Alexandre says: "You abused their children." "Yes," the old priest says, "but that's no reason to be violent!"

After this admission, Alexandre is convinced Preynat will be laicized. There are more delays but he is eventually allowed to meet Cardinal Barbarin. To Alexandre's surprise, Barbarin appears hesitant to take any action against the old priest. Alexandre says he cannot understand why the archbishop would allow a pedophile to continue in ministry. "Please don't use that expression," the Cardinal says stiffly. Why not? Because, Barbarin repies, "in the etymological sense, pedophile means 'to love children.'"

The Cardinal urges Alexandre to be patient and reminds him that Pope Francis has called on cardinals to "bravely face this evil." .. "I will be brave." he says.

Alexander begins to doubt that the Cardinal is going to do anything. He then learns that Barbarin and Preynat are old friends. Another diocesan official tells him bluntly the old man not be defrocked: "Why dig up these old stories?" he asks.

From this point Alexandre takes action and launches a campaign called La Parole Libérée, literally, 'the liberated word' (translated by the group in English as Lift the Burden.) He meets more and more victims of Preynat. There's Francois, (Denis Menochet) a combative atheist, and Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud) a psychologically damaged young man who's never recovered from the trauma of his abuse. The men meet in each others houses over meals and their families rally around them.

The film illustrates how much damage one serial predator can have on individuals and the people in their lives.

Throughout, Alexandre insists that he loves the Church. But it's because he loves the Church he cannot stand by and allow such crimes to be ignored.

Preynat abused no fewer than 70 boys and was finally defrocked in July of this year. He truly was, as one victim calls him, the "Preynator."

The title of the film comes from a press conference Barbarin gave in 2016. In response to a reporter's question about the extent of the crisis in Lyon, he replied: "Most of the facts, by the grace of God, are outside the statute of limitations."

Earlier in 2019, Cardinal Barbarin was civilly tried,found guilty of failing to report sexual abuse and given a six month suspended prison sentence, which he announced he would appeal. In June this year the 69 year-old lost his status as leader of the Archdiocese of Lyon but still retains the title of Archbishop. Why?


Watch a trailer for By the Grace of God here:

See Tell No One:

Tags: Preynat, Bernard Preynat, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Lyon, Abuse, By the Grace of God, Tell No One

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