Jewish filmmaker delves into pedophile priest scandal

As a journalist for CBS and CNN, Amy Berg produced numerous segments on pedophilia charges against California priests, and the failure of the Los Angeles archdiocese to come clean about what Cardinal Roger Mahony knew, and when.

In her debut documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” Berg focuses on Oliver O’Grady, a former Northern California priest who did seven years in prison for just a few of his crimes. The Los Angeles filmmaker handles this sensationalist material with remarkable restraint, yet it seems inevitable that some critics of the film will zero in on her Jewishness.

“I’m sure that will come up at a certain point,” Berg agrees in a recent interview at a hotel in San Francisco. “I haven’t heard it, but it might already be on the Internet.

“My response to that is, thank God I’m not a Roman Catholic making this film, because I came to it from a totally nondenominational point of view. I came in as a journalist trying to tell a story, and it wasn’t cluttered with Catholic guilt or Jewish guilt, or any of those kinds of guilt that we bring in to a story that’s very personal to us. I came in, I asked questions, I allowed the people in my film to tell this story. I just assembled it.”

Berg was originally going to call her documentary “Rotten From the Inside,” since she sees the fundamental problem as institutional. “This is about child abuse and a corporation, if you ask me,” she declares.

“Deliver Us From Evil,” which screened in the Mill Valley Film Festival, opens Friday, Oct. 20 all over the Bay Area.

Berg grew up in Studio City, in the Hollywood Hills, though her mother is a San Francisco native and has lots of family here. The 30-something journalist was raised Reform, was bat mitzvahed and confirmed. Oh, yes, and she went to Catholic school.

“It was the private school we could afford, basically,” she says, laughing. “That’s where all the Jews went, to the private school they could afford.”

Her father was a Canon dealer and her mother a legal secretary (later a nutritionist), and they had an abiding interest in current events. “There’s never been a Sunday where they missed ’60 Minutes,’ if they were at home,” Berg says. “It was very ritualistic in my house.”

Berg was influenced not only by that exposure to (mostly) serious reportage, but by an ideal of social responsibility that was instilled at home.

“My parents are both very up on the news and really interested in problems in Israel, problems in the world, and I’ve always had that kind of humanitarian affect,” Berg confides. “That’s totally what drew me to journalism — change and injustice in the world. All the stories I’ve done have been about some form of tragedy or injustice.”

An interviewee in “Deliver Us From Evil” suggests that the early age at which men enter the seminary, as well as the church’s celibacy requirements, produce a kind of arrested sexual development that’s a contributing factor in pedophilia.

The absence of such strictures may explain why cases of child abuse are so much scarcer in organized Judaism. Berg suggests that it’s also because robes and other trappings aren’t fetishized to the degree they are in the Church.

“I guess there are instances of [child abuse] in every institution, but the Jewish lifestyle seems a little bit less sexualized, if you look at the structure of the temple,” she explains.

Berg’s distaste for the constraints and conservatism of institutions extends to television networks. She’d been looking for a documentary project for some time that would allow her to segue out of television, and she drew on her extensive knowledge of the L.A. archdiocese’s failure to address honestly the ongoing scandal — and her deep disgust with the scandal itself — to make the jump.

“My dad could not be happier that I’m a journalist,” Berg says. “If he picked any career in the world for me, this would be the one he would want me to do. To [both parents], that’s a real sign of going out there and doing something.”

“Deliver Us From Evil” opens Friday, Oct. 20 all over the Bay Area.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.