Theatrically Addressing Clerical Abuse

A Theatre Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

The set for Runaway Priest, featuring the Lonely Street of Sighs banner.

Runaway Priest, by Felix Meagher, presented by Bushwahzee, at 5th Brunswick Scout Hall, East Brunswick, Melbourne on 15 April 2021.

Felix Meagher’s latest play, Runaway Priest, is an ambitious project, more serious than his earlier plays: the intention is, in music, to protest the scandal that has beset the Church in the last four decades, clerical abuse of minors. The genre it belongs to is unusual: it’s not musical theatre, more music drama. 

Clerical abuse is a complex topic, and one that for most people is difficult to fathom. The play made some headway in trying to get into the mind of the perpetrator, and the narratives he runs in his head. But the perpetrator was not the main focus: the play offered much more about a victim of such activity and an abducted child’s mother. In the play, sexuality as such was not explicit, but heavily implied, so the more anodyne term ‘training’ replaced the confrontational words ‘sexual grooming’. The reticence about sexuality as a key element in the system surprised me. ‘Training’ is of course a euphemism used by the clergy in the play for much more nefarious activities: the use of power against minors for sexual gain. The child targeted in the play was vulnerable because he had no effective father in his life; his mother was blamed for this and urged to reconcile with the father, against her interests. There is an evil misogyny at work in this ‘system’ in the unjustified victim-blaming of the mother desperate to provide a loving home for her son.

The production was a scaled back affair with a sharp focus on just a few characters: the mother, a runaway priest, a monsignor, and a pianist who played minor roles as a radio announcer, a representative of the press and policeman. It was all the more effective for the intensity of that focus. The staging of the play was also admirably simple. A very effective banner featuring the image of St Patrick’s Cathedral, fronted by a high wall of bluestone representing the graffitied Street of Sighs, a place of sadness and prostitution.  And downstage left, a desk for a priest’s office. It’s a portable play, and I hope it will travel.

Christopher Martin McCombe, as the runaway priest.

The star of the show was Felix’s original music which in part accounted for its upbeat quality, doing its job of helping the audience confront the unendurable. The most brilliant aspect of this play was the decision to tell the story from the point of view of the grief-stricken mother, a pious pillar of the church (played with understatement and passion by Cora Browne), and from the point of view of an ex-priest who offered resistance to his ‘superior’. Christopher Martin-McCombe was a very animated runaway, with a fine line in hippy body-language. He was a credible young former priest, in need of saving from himself. Felix Meagher himself played the ‘charming’, manipulative, bullying, born-to-rule Monsignor Jonah, and his repertoire of strategies were familiar to those who routinely deal with such men. The scene in which he requires the subordinate to refer to him as ‘Your Grace’ was very funny, and alarming.

Addressing the audience on opening night were Judy Courtin, who is successfully bringing charges on behalf of victims against religious institutions, and Chrissie Foster, a writer, whose family was tragically heavily impacted by abuse, and a representative from Ballarat Men’s Health, the epicentre of abuse in Victoria, which supports victims. They found the depiction of the cleric alarmingly familiar: he was a master of deflection, circumlocution and sanitising manoeuvres, who even at the finale did not acknowledge his complicity in a crime, so perversely was his narrative defensive of God’s work being done.

Matt Hadgraft had a series of telling minor roles, outlining press and police complicity in upholding the system, again something that is on the public record. He is a brilliant musician who got to play a surprisingly broad musical repertoire, from a Bach Toccata and Prelude No.2 in C minor for the monsignor’s scenes to a haunting melody that appeared as a leitmotif for the street scenes, ‘The Lonely Street of Sighs’. The music in the show was outstanding – Kev gets a bouncy song (‘I am a runaway’) that expresses his newfound freedom outside the orbit of the Monsignor, which is also joyously a return to childhood, maybe the innocence of which he was robbed. It has to be said that sound levels were a bit of a problem the night I was there, but these were subsequently sorted out, I hear.

In line with the seriousness of the piece, the symbolism of an impending storm dominates the end of the play (I read it as standing in for the huge shift in public consciousness whereby abuse moved from the moral and into the criminal/psychological/moral domains). There’s a fine line to walk, with such high emotions and existential moral stakes, and it was hard to avoid demonising the monsignor (he becomes a ‘monster’ in the final confrontation with the ex-priest) in the heightened symbolism around his suicide. However, I wondered if newer understandings of the criminality of the acts and their lasting psychological damage to children, might have suggested a more realistic ending? The storm delivers its own justice and the music intensified that. I wondered if there were other ways of registering this huge change in public sensibility: maybe a new clean cop in town, or even a devastating headline about a prison sentence (given that now many perpetrators have got jail sentences), might have been a better resolution, justifying the suicide. Monsignor Jonah remains stubbornly attached to the narrative that the ‘training’ is for the child’s good. Maybe there could have been a sign that institutions other than the Church were being more sensitive to the changes in public attitude since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2013 onwards). 

It’s complex territory, and this play gets so much right. It points to hope, a rare commodity in this territory, and maybe a sequel? But maybe it’s too much to ask for. It would be good, for instance, to hear the back-story of the runaway priest, and to experience the victim emerging from the darkness. The women’s role in this story is crucial and Cora Browne’s depiction of the mother is part of the uplifting nature of this bold play.

I applaud Felix Meagher for this brave effort to break the toxic silence around clerical abuse (Chrissy Foster described it as ‘poison’). Am I right in thinking he’s the first to do so? I’m thankful too for the uplift of his music and for finding a way to tell the story that is not completely dark. 

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective and has been a theatre critic since the early 1980s.

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