A Catholic Writer Brings His Anger to 'The Practice'

November 7, 2002
New York Times


With his series "The Practice" set in Boston and featuring
two characters identified as Catholics, David E. Kelley,
the Emmy-winning television writer, said he realized for a
long time that he probably had the ideal forum on
television in which to address the priest sex abuse scandal
that has rocked the Catholic Church and especially the
Archdiocese of Boston.

But in this case he was convinced he could not follow the
standard television formula of walking a line to steer
clear of controversy, presenting, as he said in an
interview, "the arguments of the two different sides to
provide balance." With this issue Mr. Kelley said, "There
is no balance, it's just an atrocity."

Mr. Kelley's take on the scandal appears in Sunday night's
episode of "The Practice" on ABC. And Mr. Kelley, who was
himself raised Catholic in Boston, does not pull punches.
His main character, Bobby Donnell, quits the church at the
conclusion of the episode. In a confrontation with his
parish priest, Donnell says, "Until you expel every
offending priest and everyone involved with protecting
them, concealing them, there's been no true penance."

In the telephone interview, Mr. Kelley also spoke about the
rapid demise of his new Fox series, "Girls Club," which was
only his second failure but which went off the air after
just two episodes. Mr. Kelley said: "It was such a
spectacular failure. It was like a one-round knockout, and
like most one-round knockouts you don't see the punch
coming. When something goes down this fast, you can say it
was the title, the idea, the characters, the promotion,
anything and everything."

The collapse does leave him with more time to write for
"The Practice," which he said would take on other
provocative issues like what he calls the erosion of civil
rights after 9/11. But in the context of a lawyer show, it
is hard to imagine one as hot-button as the church
molestation scandals.

In this coming Sunday's episode, Donnell's wife insists she
will not allow their newborn son to be baptized Catholic
because of fear of what might happen to him in a
confessional, and another lawyer in the firm, Eugene Young,
a non-Catholic, accuses Catholic churchgoers of tacitly
supporting abuse and its coverup.

"It's been systemic," Eugene says, "and it's not enough for
Catholic people to say, `Isn't this awful," and, `Here's my
check.' " Eugene's recommendation: "Shut the church down.
Start a different institution."

Mr. Kelley said that Donnell is not a surrogate for his own
views. "It all comes out of Bobby's character," he said,
adding that the character's Catholic background has been
well established on the seven-year-old series.

But Mr. Kelley's view of the scandal is not dissimilar. "I
think what the church did was an outrage," he said. "We
should invent a better word than outrage."

William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League, which
monitors media representations of the church, said he has
had numerous issues with Mr. Kelley in the past and has not
seen this episode. But in theory, he said, he had no
problem with a show that depicted a Catholic layman
troubled by the church's handling of the scandal. "If a
Catholic isn't troubled by this issue, he or she isn't a
good Catholic," Mr. Donohue said.

He did not endorse the solution of Catholics leaving the
church, of course.

Looking to avoid a case that pits a priest against a
victim, which numerous shows have done, Mr. Kelley invented
a case in which a man who had been raped by a priest as a
teenager sues a childhood friend for endorsing the priest
as a counselor even though the friend himself had
previously been raped by him.

The debate is augmented by Donnell's conversation with the
other Catholic lawyer in the firm, Jimmy Berluti. Berluti
is played by Michael Badalucco, who is Catholic himself.
Mr. Kelley said he incorporated Mr. Badalucco's personal
views, almost word for word, in a speech arguing against
leaving the church.

"It would be like leaving God," Berluti says. "The church
is not just the priests. It's you and me. We are the

To his and the parish priest's arguments that media
coverage has tarred good priests and the charitable works
done by the church, Donnell says: "What can you say?
Molestation gets a bad rap? I don't look to the church like
it's the United Way. For me it's about spiritual and moral

Mr. Kelley said his purpose was "to put the question out
there" - Can Catholics adequately express their rage
without quitting the church? The show does not specifically
mention the Boston cases and the criticism of Cardinal
Bernard F. Law's handling of offending priests, though
Donnell does make a reference to a "Father Shane" who was
sent to California, "with praise."

The mention refers to the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, one of the
accused priests who was protected by the Boston
Archdiocese. The>