Disagreeing About Doubt

The movie Doubt, now in theaters, offers an interesting chance for a disagreement case study.  In the movie, Sister Beauvier accuses Father Flynn of a particular act, and viewers wonder: did he actually do it, and was she justified in her response?  My wife and I disagreed quite a lot on Flynn's guilt – she's about at 95% confidence and I'm about at 40%. Apparently other viewers similarly diverge:

Those I spoke to after the movie were quite sure, maybe even certain, that Father Flynn was either guilty or innocent.

So what say the rest of you?  And what is it about this situation that causes so much disagreement anyway?  Don't read comments here unless you don't mind spoilers, which are fair game there.  (If needed, let's ground this in terms of what is reasonable to estimate given everything the screenwriter knows.)

Added: It helps to show a base rate and then corrections for each new factor.  For example, on average 5%  are guilty, and someone with a shameful past is twice as likely to be guilty, for a final estimate of 10%.

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  • Captain Awesome

    I thought it was pretty clear that Flynn was guilty. The script was arguably written ambiguously, but Hoffman didn’t play him that way; he played him straight-up guilty, I thought. When he says “there are some things I can’t say,” it’s hard to understand his tone in a way that doesn’t indicate guilt.
    Some more evidence:
    1) The Mom seems to basically be aware that something is going on.
    2) The scene in the hallway where Flynn smiles at the boy from afar, and then goes into say hi to another Priest. Afterwards, the boy is pushed around by bullies, and it’s only then that Flynn comes to see him. I took this to be an indication that Flynn is attracted to the boy’s isolation and vulnerability more than to the boy himself, a damning implication.
    3) I could be wrong, but I don’t recall there ever being an explanation as to what he was doing with the boys jacket.

    Also, I took Beauvier’s confession of doubts at the end as being about herself and her faith and/or redemption than about Hoffman’s guilt. The screenplay seemed to suggest that she may have betrayed her husband in some way.

  • Dagon

    Wait. This is FICTION! Of course he didn’t do anything – he doesn’t exist.

    Your disagreement isn’t a disagreement at all, it’s a miscommunication about expectations of a collaboratively-defined fictional world.

  • Grant

    Dagan,

    I think we then need to ask: Did the movie’s various producers intend Flynn to be guilty, innocent, or ambiguous? Why the estimations of p(guilty) were so wildly different still seems to be an interesting question.

  • Kip

    Second best movie of the year, IMO (behind The Dark Knight).

    I strongly think he was guilty. My reasons are empirical and aesthetic.

    Empirical:

    1. the priest and the boy, alone in a room together, played with a toy ballerina
    2. the mother basically admits that the boy has a gay nature
    3. the mother suggests that the boy being with the priest would not be so bad, if it lasts just until graduation and the priest protects the boy
    4. the priest behaves consistent with the nun’s lie: that he has had controversies at multiple previous parishes
    5. the priest asks the nun if she’s ever committed a mortal sin, implying that he is hiding at least one similar mortal sin from his past

    I did not understand the bit about the boy’s shirt or why he would have it. Not sure what to make of that.

    But my strongest reason for thinking he’s guilty:

    6. It makes the movie beautiful.

    If he’s not guilty, then the nun is reduced to a caricature. She crying while we’re laughing at her. She is portrayed as irrationally hostile and villainous. Then we realize, all along, she’s not certain herself. That story has no big message. If he’s not guilty, the movie has no moral complexity. It makes a serious movie silly.

    But. If he’s guilty, there’s subtlety. There’s dramatic contrast. The nun who seemed like a villain for so long, is revealed as a hero. And the priest who seemed so saintly, is a child molester.

    If he’s guilty, the movie ends as powerfully as Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, forcing you to ask “why do bad things happen to good people?” And “how can such bad things happen under the watchful eye of a loving God?” Perhaps I’m biased, because I’m fond of those themes and want to see them confront audiences more often.

    If he’s guilty, then the nun is having doubts about her faith, and not about the priest’s guilt. This (1) is consistent with her absolute certainty about his guilt, which she’s maintained throughout the movie, even up to just two minutes before her breakdown in the finale; and (2) paints a dramatic comparison between doubt about the priest’s guilt and doubt about God’s guilt (through omission).

    If he’s guilty, then the movie ends with the most virtuous and devout of persons, the person we would expect to doubt the least, and search for faith the most, doubting her faith. This is a woman who represented everything good about the old Church. Sure, she’s no fun, but the kids were better for it. They learned English, and they didn’t fake bloody noses to go smoke cigarettes.

    If he’s guilty, then the magnitude of the evidence against God, the magnitude of the evil she’s witnessed, must compare to the magnitude of her faith and piety, of her lifelong sacrifice for the Church.

    How corrupt must this corruption be? How much must evil flourish, to make a woman who gave up sex and freedom, and dedicated her entire life to the Church, doubt her faith?

    And how much must this doubt *hurt* her? She cries at the end of the movie because she’s in agony. And tears were streaming down my cheeks too. Because we are all in her same position. We all have our reasons to doubt the existence of a loving God. Such doubt is a lonely thing, whether in a convent, or in America. Doubt leaves you feeling lost and confused.

    Imagine giving up sex, and your entire life, for something only to learn that the something is a lie? To learn that you’ve given up your life for something that protects child molesters? To learn that you’ve dedicated, and prayed, and fasted, and given up so much happiness, to watch priests molest boys and get promoted? To see that the loving, all-powerful God you’ve prayed to, and given up everything for, is silent and does nothing, let’s all of this happen?

    *THAT’S* tragedy.

    But if he’s innocent, there’s no tragedy at all.

    So I think he’s guilty. But I’m biased.

    • Mary

      I just happened to see this movie. Your thoughts about douby were articulate and inciteful. That is what I took away from the movie – the doubt that we often face in our ives, and perhaps the way this doubt waxes and wanes… Our judgmental nature was also examined during this film….

      • Isaac

        I know you wrote this a long time ago and may never read this, but I just watched the movie Doubt and then went to find some reviews to answer some questions, and your comments were by far the most insightful and beautiful I have read. I agree with your take on the movie and on the nature of the nun’s doubt at the end of the movie.

        However, as a student of theology, I wanted to add something from a different perspective. It seems people have a hard time distinguishing the freedom of man from the power of God. God has given us freedom and he respects this freedom so much that he has allowed us to truly exercise it, even if it means we use it wrongly. If he were to intervene every time someone did evil then we really wouldn’t have freedom and it would be an illusion. We would only be able to obey and thus we wouldn’t truly be free.

        I notice that so many people mistake the sins of people for the work of God. Somehow they reason that if someone molests a child, this somehow reflects God since he didn’t stop it from happening. But I think it is very important to distinguish between the actions of God and the actions of people. They really are two different things. We do not know how God is going to judge and deal with those who hurt others, and how he is going to right every hurt at the end.

        But I think it important to make the distinction. I think the nun is right at the end to doubt her church, or at least the state the church is in in her time. But to doubt God is not a logical step. It may be an emotional one, but not a logical one. God is patient allowing time for people to repent and change. But eventually he does judge. And look how the priest molestation scandal has rocked the Catholic Church and is now dirty laundry for all to see. Those who did overlook in the Church at that time, they have paid for their apathy and cover up and will continue to pay in many ways. True faith is trusting in God’s goodness and promises at those very moments where it is the hardest to do so. Personally I still find faith more poetic and powerful then doubt, even though it seems these days there is an amazing fascination with doubt. I know I was at least fascinated by the movie Doubt. 😉

        Thank you for your great thoughts. I hope you continue to share them.

  • Vlad

    I didn’t see the film, but would like to make three observations:

    First, an old OB post which really disturbs me. Are we just looking for evidence to confirm our hypothesis, whatever it might me? What negatives did we look for?

    Second, it is worth re-watching the film. When I first read The Giver (possible spoiler to follow), I was absolutely positive Jonas made it in the end. A second visit often introduces at least some reinterpretation, either due to previously-omitted evidence or made-up evidence uncovered as such.

    Third, as to why we think the priest is guilty or not – I guess four factors – bias (viewers didn’t like the priest’s personality, so they damned him), conditioning (we see molesting priests in the news, so this one is no different), actual evidence and mere chance. Are there more? What is their quantitative relationship? What literature exists and is relevant in this case?

  • jb

    I have, on various occasions, tried to dampen my impulse to judge a work of art, and just let it ‘exist’. Almost invariably, it results in enjoying the work less than if I decided to make some sort of judgment.

    My interpretation:
    The director wants you to make a call, because he’s trying to teach you not to make a call. If you’re already sophisticated enough to refrain from judgment, you are not the target audience. He’s hoping that you’ll make a strong call, one way or the other, and then, shortly after, experience some sort of epiphany that the result was more ambiguous than you originally thought. And you will experience personal growth from that realization.

    Alas, IMO, most people don’t go to the movies for personal growth. They go to the movies to see their code of ethics justified and reinforced by example.

  • Michael

    Flynn, I think it is pretty clear, does not feel guilt about whatever he has done. It also seemed to me that he was not especially self-deceptive. Flynn’s battle is against the church, and against the church culture, rather than with himself. Now, raping a young boy is clearly wrong. So, one must either assume that the second claim is false–Flynn IS especially and deviantly self-deceptive–or infer that he did not rape the young boy. The latter seems more plausible to me. Yet clearly his relationship with the young boy was not innocent–in the Church’s, not Flynn’s eyes. I think that this inconsistency can be resolved by concluding that Flynn seduced, but did not violate, Donald. He got the boy drunk, achieved his love, perhaps was even physically affectionate with the boy, but did not engage sexually with Donald.

    Of course, this is all something like asking, was Hamlet over 6′ tall?

  • infopractical

    Hoffman said in an interview on NPR that he asked the writer whether the character was guilty, and the writer told him yes, so he played him that way.

  • Kip

    I agree with jb’s interpretation as a “meta-interpretation.” I think the author leaves it open enough to at least make that point. But I think that point is secondary to the one I made above, about the priest’s guilt. The fact that movie makes both points, simultaneously, makes it all the more impressive to me.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    For those who are confident of guilt, should the evidence that convinces you be admissible in court; if not, why not?

    • el walker

      It actually is admissible. All of the priest’s responses when he is accused would come in, imo, and the ambiguity of his rejoinders is subject to argument.
      Prosecutors (or Plaintiff’s counsel in a civil case) argue with great success that failure to forcefully deny or rebut such an infamous charge is a classic hallmark of guilt. It may or may not be true for all people–obviously some are more given to spirited denials than others–but it is a truism, and it works in court.

  • http://lisperati.com Conrad Barski

    To correct infopractical: I saw that NPR fresh air interview and though Hoffman made it clear that he and the director agreed on the guilt but he did not share the answer with anyone else and did not expose it during the interview, as far as I could tell.

    My own interpretation (admittedly, a low probability of truth, but the most natural given my impression of the movie)

    The priest is gay (explaining his admittance of previous transgressions and other behavior) but he did not hurt the boy.

  • frelkins

    on average 5% are guilty

    All right, since Robin asks for estimates, I will help with some baseline data.

    “The numbers we have right now suggest that about 1.6 [percent] to 2 percent of priests are sexually involved with minors sometime during their career. So what we see is this number is probably the same or maybe even less than in society. So it’s not really a priests’ problem. It is a societal problem. And sad to say that there are a significant percentage of adults in our society who sexually molest minors.”

    Rev. Rossetti, a shrink priest who treated accused priests, to CNN

    But he’s a priest himself, maybe he underestimates. So:

    “If the 2,000 cases are spread over a period of 80 percent turnover in the priesthood, or if the number of guilty priests is more like 1,100, or if the percentage of priests who are gay is more like 50 percent, then only about 8 percent of gay priests have committed sexual abuse.” (this would argue for an abuse rate of 4% overall?)

    Wm. Saletan, Slate

    But some might think Saletan is political, so:

    “Based on the allegations, the number of abusive priests peaked in 1983. More than 11% of the diocesan priests – those who worked directly for the archdiocese, rather than for religious orders – who were in ministry that year eventually were accused of abuse.”

    LA Times

  • Kip Werking

    I don’t see any reason why the evidence should, or would, not be admissible.

    I’m not sure how to assign probabilities to the various factors, or what probability I would end up with. But I think the author/director was trying to give the impression that the priest was guilty, while leaving enough wiggle room to make you doubt, which is consistent with the indication, in the other comment, that the author/director said the priest was actually guilty.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    As Frelkins shows, the base rate seems to be pretty low, no higher than 5%. Most of the evidence found in the plot in favor of guilt seems pretty weak in terms of likelihood ratios, so I don’t see how those could get you over 20%. And they couldn’t possibly get you convicted in a trial. I said 40% mainly on the basis of meta-info that story is about “Doubt”, and that many people seem to think he’s guilty.

    jb seems right to me, that the story is intended more as a warning against overconfidence. If so, we should want to figure out how it tempts us to overconfidence, so we can avoid that.

  • frelkins

    @Robin

    And what is it about this situation that causes so much disagreement anyway?

    Successful art engages the emotions, so the disagreement here based on “feeling” perhaps just shows it is a fine piece of art. Maybe it tempts to overconfidence by playing on prejudices, stereotypes, and social anxiety?

    The movie’s theme is going to be very difficult to judge rationally, since it combines several social anxieties, which I hope are now fading: prejudice against gay people in general, prejudice against Catholicism in the generally Protestant USA, hyped fears about child abuse from the 80s (the famous charges of pre-school teachers based on “recovered memories”) and the media’s dramatic overplay of charges against the Church, as well as this newish gender anxiety about men being near children, even as society demands fathers be more “involved.”

    None of this is to deny the fact that child abuse happens, and did happen in the Church. It is tragic.

    When I was a little girl, a retired man down the street lived with his daughter. I used to go visit him because he had a lot of Lionel trains, very elaborate – beautiful little towns, people, etc. and he would let me play with them, unlike most train buffs, I guess. We spent hours arranging the buildings and figurines, which were like dolls to me, so I loved it. He was just a sweet old grandpa type.

    Nowadays I can’t imagine most people would allow their 4 year old girls to be alone in a cellar with a 70 year old man, no matter how innocent. It’s a pity. In my nabe we have many Mr. Moms, who will sometimes complain that the hired nannies will give them the eye when they take their own children to the playground. This men-with-children anxiety seems especially prevalent now in the US; for a non-US example, here.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    People who have (or believe themselves to have) recovered repressed memories of childhood abuse have this same problem entirely within their own heads — should they believe their memories as they are now or as they were at an earlier time? I had a friend who went through this and I could not quite imagine what it was like — not the trauma so much, but the feeling that one had two alternate histories with some degree of uncertainty about which was the correct one. Whether one believes in repressed memories or not, the point remains that people are unreliable narrators, even when narrating their own life to themselves.

  • Lewis Powell

    @Robin What happened to your and your wife’s probabilities after you discovered the disagreement?

  • SF

    You are all missing the point. The doubt in the last scene is not about the guilt of Father Flynn. Sister Beauvier (Meryl Streep) already stated that she felt he confessed when he resigned. The doubt is about her faith in her church. Remember, the director shows us her cross and then she hides its it under her robe almost as if she’s ashamed of it. She goes on to talk about how Father Flynn was given a promotion. She is angry at how her church is sweeping it under the rug. She is doubting the institution that she has dedicated her life to. That is what she is doubting and that is why she was crying in the last scene.

  • JerseyGirl

    I believe that the priest was gay and that was his bond with the young boy.
    His mortal sin that he confessed to “his confessor” was that he is gay.
    I don’t believe that he violated the young boy but rather was helping him to coupe with this.

  • DMOX

    I believe that the director of the films purpose was not to bring down a religion in any means or manner. However, a few years ago many priest had been committed of crimes such as the crime suspected in the movie. If the Producer/Director had let one side win or the other then he or she would have been under fire not only by arguing spouses but by the whole world. I believe this is why it was left the way it was. Now as we all know again in the last few years many priest were taken to jail for this crime and again that is why I believe it is a movie of guilt on the priest side, however, it shows how far back these crimes go. If you remember in the movie 1st the date then the transistor radio, it gives you a time line of how long the world has been in the wrong. Also, remember his speeches that were directed at the sister, when someone points a finger, they have four pointing back at themselves.

  • Julie W

    The Priest gave Donald the mirror with the magnetic ballerina. Move the mirror, and the ballerina follows suit. I believe the toy symbolized the relationship between the Priest and Donald. The mirror symbolized the Priest with the power, and the ballerina symbolized Donald. Later, when another boy knocked the books out of Donald’s arms, the toy fell down and was smashed. Donald and the Priest quickly picked up the broken pieces of the toy and Donald held the pieces in the closed palms of his hands. I believe the broken toy symbolized the disintegration of Donald’s and Priests relationship, while jointly picking up the pieces represented their efforts to hold their relationship together, and hiding the broken toy represented efforts to keep their relationship private.

    When Donald asked the other boy if he was overweight, that was a very odd unusual thing for one boy to ask another. My nephew, a mainstream teenager, has a weight issue on and off, will not admit to me, his Aunt, that he is concerned about his weight. But I know he is. He does not turn down soda because he doesn’t like it much (although he states that), but because of his efforts to control his weight. So, Donald’s question made me suspectful.

    Combined with the other evidence, I don’t see a justifiable reason why the Priest would be placing Donald’s shirt in Donald’s locker.

    I do believe that actions (& body language) speak louder than words. Sometimes, someones make an unrehearsed action that speaks so heavily to the truth that it takes our breath away, and from the body language, we KNOW the truth. I believe that Meryl Streep experienced that when she saw William pull away from the Priest in the courtyard, and when the young teacher saw Donald’s expression when he returned to the classroom.

    So, my 2 cents, is that the Priest crossed a physical line with Donald, that was inappropriate. How far, who knows, but it was too far.

  • http://blog.robpitingolo.org Rob

    Having not read any of the other comments on this post, I can say I walked out of the theater 50/50. Doubt is one of those movies that I would have to watch multiple times to feel comfortable forming an opinion either way.

  • Devo

    I agree that the priest was gay and he felt recognition and compassion for the boy and did nothing to harm him. I take huge exception to the notion that the nun is any kind of hero. In fact, I feel that people like this create about as much damage as child molesters. She’s basically Taliban lite. Her predecessors were dunking witches into lakes. Well, you get my drift and 2 cents. I think we can take the priest’s thoughtful sermons and compassionate words at face value and the only thing he couldn’t truly come clean about was his sexuality.

  • Luke

    From a pragmatic, realistic point of view, I recommend this article: http://falserapesociety.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-film-doubt-tells-much-about-our.html

  • http://www.econ.canterbury.ac.nz/eric Eric Crampton

    It’s a movie now? Saw the stage production a couple years back… recall setting p about 0.3 prior to seeing the priest’s reaction to the nun’s claiming to have called prior parishes, then about 0.6 after. Twas very good as a stage production…will have to see the movie.

  • Nicole

    I don’t have the time to type this out with much conviction or persuasion, but I will quickly state my view. Kip, I disagree with you. The movie is more profound if you take the stance of the priest being innocent. The priest being guilty is a story we have all heard before (in the news, or such). The priest being WRONGLY accused, however, is a different outlook. I feel the movie’s moral lesson was not whether or not the priest did anything wrong, but that the quick and unfounded judgment passed by the nun can have terrible consequences. I viewed Doubt as a modern-day ‘Crucible’. The nun was on a witch hunt. She had no proof, and yet was steadfast in her belief that the priest molested the boy. Remember Father Flynn’s sermon on gossip and the feathers? That is the moral of the story. By even whispering such an accusation, his reputation is ruined. You can never gather all the feathers again. He had no way of proving his innocence. Someone could accuse me of that and what could I possibly do to prove otherwise? The lesson is to be very careful of what you say of others. Without proof, you can ruin lives irreparably.

    • el walker

      That’s funny–I had the opposite reaction. Pedophiles are generally accomplished manipulators, and the idea that, in 1964, a NUN could unjustly persecute a priest in this regard is simply fanciful.

    • Andrew Munz

      Exactly – we all have had our opinions and beliefs instilled on us by our demographics our culture as well as the beliefs of our parents instilled on us as children.! I agree with you 100 % I wrote the letter above Andrew Munz- I am interested in chatting more with you, I am a person that fights for injustice here in my community and my region as well as other injustices that transpire abroad.
      naturesoutdoors at yahoo dot com – if you receive this letter on subject line state movie response to the movie DOUBT –
      Have a great day
      God Bless
      Bye

  • Ben Jones

    Consider the question ‘in what proportion of all the possible universes wherein every scene in the movie actually happened is Flynn guilty?’ Is this an isomorphic question? If so, does it yield different estimates from what you might think about the movie itself?

  • gabriella

    I’d like to address the fact that when people watch the movie and think of his guilt they always implicate the young black boy, when in fact it seems as though the young blonde boy is probably the one he has been molesting. Throughout the movie their reactions towards each other are very strange. The boy is always afraid/angry with him. In the end of the movie you see the boy smile when he sees the father leaving; one of those kind of smiles of relief. The principal tells Sister James that the boy would do ANYTHING including give himself a bloody nose to get away from the school. He is seen smoking a cigarette just like the priest as well. On the other hand, the young black boy probably had a lot in common with the priest, at least in the priest’s eyes and tugged at a certain heart-string with him. They both were gay and hiding that secret, they both felt alone and hiding lies, etc., etc. He more likely than not was a true protector of the boy, and when he left the young boy was truly sad and distraught. In the end, sister Aloysius does not waiver from her belief that he was guilty, she is one-hundred percent sure of this, but she does doubt her faith which she had previously told the priest that she was willing to wager on getting him to confess, which probably began her questioning it in the first place.

  • Thomas

    After seeing this film, I am still torn.

    One key piece of evidence leading me toward his evidence: when the boy is sent from Sister James’s class to the office, and he comes back upset and swearing, after seeing Viola Davis in the office. This tells me something: I think perhaps Hoffman found the two boys committing sexual acts at some point, and drinking the whine.. Maybe all of Hoffman’s actions in this film are to cover up their relationship. He would rather have just Streep think he’s a sexual preditor than have EVERYONE know these two boys were having sex; it would ruin their lives. And most of his actions can explain this– His constant “there are things you don’t know!” and his covering up for his actions without ever explaining anything. And, I’m sure the boy would take being kicked out of the alter boys over having everyone know this. And, perhaps his mother (Davis) knows what really happened too! So, she’s accepting his punishment so she can hide the truth from her husband. She also keeps telling Streep to leave it alone, let it be, my husband would beat my son if he found out the truth. Is this a possibility??

    But, the one thing that pushes me back the other way, is the incident where Streep supposedly called his old school. Having heard this, Hoffman is upset and finally gives in– this implies that he did do something at his old school. BUT!!! Perhaps he sees this as his way out. Maybe if he acts as thogh this has proved him guilty, and pretends that he did something at his old school to completely satisfy Streep, he can resign without having it all come out. This could be his way of ending it, and ensuring that the truth doesn’t get out.

    Just my alternative explaination! Having written it all down, I think this is the way I will interpret the film; he is innocent, he is protecting the relationship between the two boys. The seen where the boy swears and goes back to the classroom is just so weird! And seemingly out of place.

  • Emile

    That’s a very interesting hypothesis, and indeed I don’t see any better explanation of the white altar boy (what’s his name?) getting all upset when coming back in class. That could explain why Donald’s mother doesn’t flip out when Sister Aloysius talks about him being in an improper relation with Father Flynn, and the fact that she seems to expect the blame to fall on Donald and not on Doctor Flynn. However, I think I remember David’s mom saying something about how they should go against Doctor Flynn – she just didn’t seem to think it would work, because he would be protected etc. If she knew he wasn’t to blame and was only protecting her son, I would expect her to be more reluctant to go against him.

    • zuzu

      James is the white altar boy.
      and he gets upset when he goes back to class because he cares about Donald and since he sees Mrs Miller in Sister Aloysious he knows something is going on

  • http://wall.alphacoders.com/images/Women/Women-Sensual-44774.jpg Jonas

    Which movie is the conversation about? Seems pretty weird.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/aroneus Aron

    I finished the movie favoring innocence. None of the evidence was particularly strong and the prior is against it. The boy’s mother didn’t indicate knowing anything, just indicated that she’d prefer sexual molestation to the violence of the boy’s father or his public school peers which was how she saw the choices. Flynn was set up as a rule-breaker, or progressive, who defied some of the traditional rules. He would have secular songs at xmas, make things more tolerant rather than disciplinarian. In this vein, he concealed the boy’s wine incident much like he concealed the truth at a prior parish, for what he interpreted to be the ‘right thing to do’ which is how he explained things in his farewell speech, and even despite ‘there being no thinkable reason why’ as he explains to Streep’s character.

    I thought several times during the film that the filmmakers had not made his guilt sufficiently plausible, if ambiguity was their goal. Though I think ultimately, they need it to tilt towards innocence because that is maximal contrast to the determined certainty of guilt from Beuvier.

    Streep’s character is motivated most likely by a strong personality turn after her husband’s death in WWII. She was apparently NOT a nun before that. The standard conflict there is ‘if there is a god, why does he do such horrible things to people so close to me?’ She is wrestling with her desire to have all things be ordered and have meaning, including her husband’s death. At some level her certainty which defied the actual evidence in the case of Flynn triggers her tearful episode at the end where she acknowledges that there may not be the certainty of a god.

  • http://www.google.com John Jones

    This movie also left me with a desire to know the truth. I personally had to struggle with a inclination to protect the innocent, versus the known biases that occur because of the disgusting misdeeds made by SOME individual priests. In this movie, I couldn’t come to a conclusion one way or another as to the guilt of the priest. I honestly can’t see how any of the people who submitted the above “guilty verdicts” did either. It literally was a tossup. Any of the above statements linking guilt could be just as easily explained. On the other hand, any potential abuse couldn’t be exonerated by facts either.

    Whether the priest or the boy was gay is irrelevant to whether or not abuse took place. In the U.S. court of law someone is found guilty if all members of the jury are confident BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT that they in fact believe the person to be guilty. Of all those privy to the matter (the nuns, the monsignor, etc), only Meryl Streep’s character was confident beyond all doubt that guilt was evident (until the end of course in which the projection of her actual doubt was ambiguous).

    Some could say (as some did comment above) that the priest gave less than transparent answers to the nun during her line of questioning. While some could perceive that as indirectly admitting guilt, it could also have been true that the boy confessed circumstances of his own life to the priest in confidence by which the priest was bound not to reveal. Some also claim (as did Streep’s character) that guilt was inherent due to the priest’s reluctance to fight the matter and accept the “sentence” granted him by the nun. However it could be argued that the priest chose to avoid destroying his reputation and sending an entire parish into turmoil and “DOUBT”.

    Grant’s response above in my opinion is disingenuous and alludes to guilt based on the fact that it would make the move “beautiful” and otherwise frivolous. I disagree completely in that the movie is already a masterpiece given that is has generated so much thought and discussion as is evident through this thread.

    The bottom line is that every scene in the movie was carefully orchestrated so as to promote ambiguity and ambivalence. We can all have opinions on the actual guilt or innocence of the main character, but any conclusion that is drawn is devoid of evidence (including actual testimony of the boy) and made with subjectivity and/or internal biases.

  • Davidgonzalezfeijoo

    I have two important points to make:1) The fact that the priest switches parishes does not prove his guilt like Sister Beauvier says. Think about it: How would you feel if someone who’s sworn to ruin you threatens to call up everyone from your past to tell them that you might be a child abuser? And what would you do if she tells you that she won’t do it as long as you leave the school? I’ll tell you what you’d do: YOU’D LEAVE THE SCHOOL! It doesn’t matter that you’re innocent. Gossip like that is almost just as bad as being found guilty.2) Research borderline personality disorder. Sister Beauvier’s behaviour is clearly, obviously, & without a doubt symptomatic of this disorder. The jealousy. The sarcasm. The anger. The chaotic interpersonal relationships. The projections: When Sister Beauvier says that he’s incapable of remorse, she’s not really talking about him; she’s projecting what she feels about herself. When she says that he’s a lair and that he doesn’t really care about Donald Miller, she’s not not talking about him; she’s projecting what she feels about herself. This is all classic BPD behaviour. Think about how her perception of reality is based purely on emotions. Again, that’s classic BPD behaviour. Think of the personal & political reasons behind her distortion campaign. Again, classic BPD behaviour. (If you want to learn more about Borderline Personality Disorder, you should read “Stop Walking on Eggshells.” You’d be surprised.)Hasn’t anyone else seen the connection between Sister Beauvier’s behaviour and BPD?

    • el walker

      Oh my gracious. Quite a stretch, and her conduct had NONE of the hallmarks of the very destructive BPD Syndrome–a very controversial diagnosis, I might add, in that it seems always to be wielded as a weapon against women.
      Btw, I find it amazing that you assume most or all of us would transfer vs. resist unfounded gossip.

    • Damien MFoor

      Categorizing people is not exactly truth, even when some newer religionists have undertaken those tactics.

  • Shawn

    It’s an amazing reaction. Blaming the Nun for having Borderline Personality Disorder, lol. Yes, because she found a pedophile. I am a practicing Catholic myself. I am saddened by how many people on this board want to blame the boys, or the fact it might be a sexual relationship between two boys. Fr. Flynn represents “secularization” and yes he represents a more “loving church” that is Post Vatican II (the council was in full swing by 1964, when the movie took place). Yes, he uses the Council to get closer to the people. He wants to take the boys camping to show he loves them. She is condemned as a traditionalist and he is the progressive, he’s lovable. So is the devil, lol, and Fr. Flynn represents everything that WAS WRONG with the church. He moves from being so post-council to being traditionalist himself: “You have vows, you must answer to us.” How quickly he reinforces the hierarchy of the Church. IF he was innocent, he would have went to the Pastor of the Parish and reported the woman. He is as guilty as sin. “What I have done I have left in the hands of my confessor.” He longs for the post-council church to show that he’s really ok. He is really a betrayer of the priesthood. Priests like him have trolled parishes for decades, and no one “ever believes its them.” He had children’s clothing. As an altar server myself I never undressed in front of a priest. He has two flowers, he’s molested two boys: The blond boy who is acting out in class (you want to look up BPD, look up responses to sexual abuse). Then, you will see those boys were victims. Even today, we want to stand with the guilty priests. It is a pathetic response. “We can all be joined by doubt?” It sounds so appealing. It is the opposite of the faith he is supposed to have espoused.

    • Mr Worldly Wiseman

      No. You are wrong. I am willing to bet my life on it

  • Bob

    The movie was intentionally left open for interpretation. That is a fact, so why then does everyone seem to have a concrete belief, about the guilt or innocence of the character. The writer himself hasn’t stated whether the priest is innocent or guilty. A lot of people are missing the point of the story. The point isn’t to determine who is guilty and who isn’t. The story was to show how human beings react based on their biases, past experiences, beliefs, mistrust of circumstances, stereotypes etc, anyone that says he’s concretely innocent or guilty has missed the entire point of the story.

    That being said, I feel it was clear he was innocent, he only left because had he stayed that Sister would have destroyed his reputation thus ruining his chances of staying in the Church. If the principal of the school accuses him of molesting children he wouldn’t, regardless of whether its true or not, people would believe it (kind of like how so many of you believed her) and his life would have been ruined.

  • Jayney

    When I first saw this movie I was almost certain father Flynn was guilty. However, the more I watch it, the more I’m changing my mind. In fact I would even go as far as to say that the accuser is projecting her doubt onto father Flynn, and is looking to God throughout the movie for a sign, the wind, the lightbulbs etc. I think it’s very cleverly written, directed and acted that it remains so ambiguous and open to interpretation.

    • Andrew Munz

      Bob and Jaynee
      are both correct – I found myself at first in the same mind set as
      Jaynee of complete and absolute guilt because Father Flynn leaving to go to
      another church; upon further examination I realized that just because he left
      this community for another does not find absolute evidence of his guilt; on the
      side of this equation by leaving he did leave an opportunity for questioning of
      his innocence yet again there was no absolute evidence to justify a guilty
      verdict in the court of law. – until there is absolute proof a belief is all
      that it is a belief and nothing more — ! !

  • F. Baptiste

    The movie isn’t about whether Flynn is guilty or innocent, the movie is about how people can convince themselves of great evil when there is absolutely no evidence of evil.

    • Lori

      Very well said.

    • Patrice Mitsos

      I agree. Thus film is all about what views are going to bring TO the film from their own life’s experiences. There is NO EVIDENCE of Father Flynn’s being gay (not that that is a crime, OF COURSE), nor of his molesting Donald (this, of course, WOULD be a crime (.

      The whole purpose is in the title. DOUBT. The film is all about how people will interpret small actions and GOSSIP (remember Father Flynn’s last sermon, about a feathers in the air, and how they spread, like “gossip”?), based on evidence, no facts….just their own feelings and prejudices.

    • Mr Worldly Wiseman

      Last paragraph ===> Yes! I thought that same thing as well. She said the younger nun wanted ‘simplicity’ … But 100% thinking he’s guilty can be simplistic as well.

  • Zawadi Carroll

    If Donald Miller was white people would be more sure in the Fathers guilt, its easier to just blame the little black boy, “of course he drank the wine” etc. -.- . And why was he from such a fucking dysfunctional family?! Any one that is black knows how black mothers are about their children so that segment was so inaccurate I feel, especially during this time period. This movie just promoted the stereotype that black fathers are no good. The Catholic Church is just not the place to be if youre black I would know.Obviously he is guilty, why else would he be so afraid at the LIE the sister told about speaking with a nun at his last parish? Plus his paranoia! People are so busy talking about some invisible personality disorder when obviously Father Flynn was super anxious?!

    • allie

      No, i disagree white and black are no different they are people of God, i see no reason that if Donald was white there would be so much controversy about this i think it would be the same. Blacks and whites are the same just different colors.

      • AzX101

        Wrong..totally wrong. Because cultural values at home are different between blacks and whites.

    • Mr Worldly Wiseman

      Oh good heavens, expecting every instance of a black person in a movie to represent all black people is stereotypical of black people. Why are you REPRESENTING black people so poorly??

  • james

    Father Flynn molested the boy. That is what happened and Beauvier is certain of that. Multiple scenes support this. Donald’s mother and Father Flynn’s removal are the two big one’s, of course. Beauvier had doubts on all other things with the church and her own faith. She DOUBTS her own faith. This includes her doubts surrounding the Catholic church.

    • F. Baptiste

      There is absolutely no evidence from Donald’s mother that Flynn abused Donald. She only revealed that Donald also has homosexual tendencies. As for Flynn’s removal from the other parishes: we know he is extremely liberal, and has homosexual tendencies. Obviously these predispositions would get him in trouble with most conservative catholic parishes.

      • Patrice Mitsos

        There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that FATHER Flynn is either gay OR molested Donald. None.

        This play and movie are both all about what people WANT to see and believe. Their socioeconomic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, political affiliations,and degrees of religious faith, if they have any, inform how they’re going to interpret Father Flynn. But in terms of “facts”, there is NO EVIDENCE in the film that can make ANYONE SAY he DEFINITIVELY molested the boy, or is gay. None.

      • Mr Worldly Wiseman

        There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that this movie Even EXISTS outside your MIND. Nothing is real but Your PERCEPTIONS.

  • Trish

    Father Flynn was innocent in this movie.

    • Southernguy82

      I don’t think he was innocent at all. He didn’t molest Donald (yet) but did anyone notice the blond boy’s behavior? First clue was when he pulled away from Father Flynn, almost as if he were disgusted. Second clue was just his overall behavior. Very antagonistic, rebellious, and making obvious attempts to talk to the little girl in class. As if he were trying to prove to the world and himself of his hetorsexuality.
      Also I found it odd that the girl later told the father that she was in love with him. Last and final clue that was a dead give away was how he smiled while Father Flynn was saying goodbye. He was relieved.
      I think this movie is genius. It’s easy to assume that Donald was the victim. He’s isolated, gay, and the only black child in school. He wasn’t molested. I think Father Flynn genuinely cared , and empathized for him, however who knows where things could of gone had he stayed.
      It’s really ironic that all of this stared because The Nun observed how the boy pulled the way from the priest outside in the beginning of the movie.Thats when she first began to question Father Flynn. She was right about him.

      • F. Baptiste

        The blond boy was disgusted by Father Flynn because the blond boy knows Father Flynn has homosexual tendencies, and the blond boy is extremely intolerant and homophobic.

      • Mr Worldly Wiseman

        Perhaps. Good point. Also, he was a bit of a troublemaker.

  • Trish

    I’m sure of it. I think. Maybe.

  • Casandra

    Regardless of the personalities of the two main characters and their beliefs and behaviors, the most important element to this discussion is the safety of the boy. If there is ANY DOUBT as to one’s behavior regarding the safety of the child, that person needs to be removed from any contact with the child. Think of Jerry Sandusky (Penn State) and the disbelief that he could be doing what was reported numerous times. Had he been removed from Penn State, many boys would not have been harmed and not have to deal with the (lifelong) aftermath of sexual molestation.
    Problem is…when these men are removed, the find another place,

  • gora

    are you guys idiots? have you heard what hoffmans characters said to st james? under the tree, about love and compassion? and arent you aware of their conversations, very skillfully made, subtle yet so powerful and realistic, streep saying to hoffman, “the warm feelings you get when the boy look up to you with trust is not a sign of virtue”. and when streep confessed to amy adams that she lied to hoffman, saying she contacted earlier schools he’s been and why he got transferred, and immidietly hoffman reacted like it was true. and how all of the sudden hoffman got near streeps face and said, “have you ever sinned?” and streep said, “yes.”. “have you confessed it yet?”. she said, “yes.”. “so that is my answer, i confessed my sin to a pastor, and the secret is between me and him.” or something similar to that. and when streep express her concerns to the boys mother, viola davis, she said, “im talking about his nature. its not because of the wine his father beats him up. people on the public school hate him, kids here hates him. at least one man is good to him, despite whatever his intentions might be.”. so to sum it up, the boy is gay and hoffmans character is gay. so its more of an improper relationship, with the concent of the black boy instead of hoffmans character attacking him. that’s why he defended him and told the other teacher that he drank the wine by himself not because hoffman gave him the wine. there are sexual activities, the evidence is the undershirt amy adams caught hoffmans character when he was putting it back to the boys locker. but the boy equally wanted the sexual activity as much as hoffmans character wanted it.

    • Glenn

      Starting your reply with “are you idiots” would carry a lot more weight if you at least capitalized the first letter of your sentences.

  • Amina

    Sister Aloysius’ suspicion was based on one thing; DOUBT. Doubt nags the mind and it refuses to go away. All she did was send him away by bluffing and I don’t believe Father Flynnn resigned because he was guilty but because he was tired of that woman prosecuting him with no proof. I’m glad she didn’t succeed in destroying his life.

    • AzX101

      If I was a pastor who hadn’t done anything wrong, I will be SO confident about my character despite the circumstances, that someday the truth will come out when the boy grows up and speaks of it. Truth cannot be hidden forever for the most part.

  • Sam

    The most-telling giveaway to Flynn’s guilt was this: in their final scene together, Sister Beauvier asks Flynn once again whether he did it, and he says “no” but his head nods up and down like a yes. This is called opposite nodding and is usually a clear indicator of lying/deception through body language. My theory is, since writer John Patrick Stanley only told Philip Seymour Hoffman whether Flynn was guilty or not, this was Hoffman’s small, subtle way of letting us know. Hoffman didn’t *have* to opposite-nod, he chose to, methodically as an actor. That, in addition to the Donald’s undershirt being in his possession, the peculiar behavior of the blond boy towards Flynn ALONE (he acts up in general, but is only disgusted/apprehensive with close contact with Flynn) and the fact that Flynn usually reverted to asking investigative questions when confronted (as to figure out how much the Sisters know/can prove) leads me to believe Flynn was guilty of foul play with Donald.

  • IFMOD

    I think Father Flynn was a homosexual (but priests are celibate anyway, so it doesn’t really matter). That would explain why he’d moved around in the preceding years, and his more “progressive” stance. I think he noticed Donald exhibited a lot of the same tendencies, and so he took Donald under his wing in a STRICTLY PLATONIC, PATERNAL way. Sure, it was unusual how close they were, but I don’t think Flynn did anything untoward.