How does a film about Catholic clergy abuse not descend into depression?  It helps when the victim doesn't act like one but uses his own intellect and humor to fight back.  Unlike any other look at this topic, Hand of God is a poetic and provocative tale of one survivor and his family.  Beyond the headlines, statistics and ecclesiastical spin, filmmaker Joe Cultrera grounds the story of his brother Paul in the details of their Sicilian-American Catholic upbringing.  From baptism to abuse; silence to dialogue; resignation to action, the film follows one person's internal and external journey from potential priest to scathing critic.

The storyline begins in Salem,  Massachusetts with Paul Cultrera's baptism into the Catholic faith.  By 1964, at the age of 14, Cultrera is an altar boy at St. James Parish in Salem.  He is under the guidance of a bright young priest, Father Joseph E. Birmingham.  Paul becomes entrapped in a twisted sacramental cycle of abuse taking him from confession, to rectory "counseling" sessions, to nighttime rides in Birmingham's Ford Galaxy.

In 1992, ten years before the Boston Globe makes clergy abuse public knowledge, Paul Cultrera speaks of his abuse for the first time.  Eventually, in search of therapy, he approaches the Archdiocese of Boston. Ironically, the person in charge of these complaints is Father John B. McCormack - a seminary classmate of Joseph Birmingham, and a fellow priest with him at St. James.

Over time Paul becomes suspicious of McCormack's statements and intentions. Sensing that McCormack is withholding information he begins his own investigation, tracking Birmingham's assignments from Sudbury to Salem, Lowell, Brighton, Gloucester and Lexington.  He uncovers first-hand evidence that he is just one of probably a hundred Birmingham survivors.  It becomes obvious that McCormack-in his role as Director of Ministerial Personnel-has had a direct hand in at least one of Birmingham's assignments and the dismissing of parishioner concerns.  McCormack is elevated to Bishop, and Paul develops some harsh conclusions about corporate faith.

In 2002, with donations dipping and lawsuits lurking, the Archdiocese of Boston targets several churches for closing.  In January of 2003 it locks the doors of St. Mary's Italian Church in Salem - the Cultrera family's beloved neighborhood house of worship.  Built by the monetary donations and sweat equity of the family and their neighbors, St Mary's is the center and the pride of their community. It's closing puts them in their own Purgatory - a place between their devotion to the Catholic faith, and their anger at the Catholic institution.  This anger boils over during the final mass at St. Mary's when Paul Cultrera Sr. has an emotional on-camera exchange with the clergy.

Director Joe Cultrera sparingly narrates HAND OF GOD from the perspective of a young person unconsciously recording the path of the years - both in his mind and with his camera.  Eventually he becomes a more active participant in the story.  He assists his brother's investigation and the documentary itself creates a dialogue within the family.  In the course of filming, Joe finds himself in a startling and revealing confrontation with Bishop Richard Lennon, the successor to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.  By the film's conclusion the director comes to question his own holy ghosts.

HAND OF GOD is a frankly told tale of betrayal.  In balancing faith against disappointment the subjects survive it all with their humor intact.  This is an engaging and vivid portrait of family, community and the triumph of individual spirit.

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