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Sri Lanka auteur irks church with film about killer priest

Famous director was friends with Anglican priest but is now on crusade to expose sexual abuse within all religions
Sri Lanka auteur irks church with film about killer priest

Veteran filmmaker Chandran Rutnam directs a scene from his latest movie According to Mathew, which tells the true story of an Anglican priest in Colombo who killed two people and sexually abused parishioners and children. (Photo supplied)

Published: July 17, 2018 10:25 AM GMT

Sri Lankan filmmaker Chandran Rutnam's latest flick According to Mathew is stirring controversy ahead of its release, with the Catholic Church saying it casts Catholics in a bad light in this Buddhist-majority country.

The film portrays the true story of Father Mathew Peiris, a sexually abused Anglican priest who had an affair with his secretary and later murdered her husband Russel Ingram before also taking the life of own wife Eunice Peiris in 1979 by causing her to overdose on an anti-diabetic drug.

Peiris, a priest of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Kynsey Road, Colombo, was later condemned to death by hanging for the double murders.

The film, which was shot where the historical events took place, stars Jacqueline Fernandez, a former Miss Sri Lanka Universe and Bollywood actress, and Sri Lanka-born Australian singer-songwriter and actor Alston Koch.

Rutnam, who also serves as president of the Asian Film Location Services, had originally scheduled his crime-thriller to be released in English and dubbed in Sinhalese and Tamil in April 2017, but its release has been stalled.

The director, an international award winner who has denounced sexual scandals in all religions, said he is determined to get his film out without making any concessions or changes.

"Father Mathew also abused children. When young girls went for confession with him, he took advantage of them," said Rutnam, who has worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg.

"I strongly condemn the sexual abuse or sexual misconduct carried out by any cleric in any religion," Rutnam said, adding such scandals are a plague affecting most religions.

He cited the recent case involving Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican's most senior figure to face sexual abuse charges, as well as a series of charges being leveled at Catholic clergy in the U.S.

"This is a true story. I stuck to the facts and the court records of Father Peiris' trial. I didn't make anything up," Rutnam told ucanews.com.

"I knew the facts because Father Mathew was my pastor and also my friend," said Rutnam, who was also production manager for Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor and Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, parts of which were shot in Kandy in 1983.

"We faced objections from all sides. Many letters of complaint [about the movie] were sent to the prime minister, president and concerned ministers," said Rutnam, a devout Christian.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church who requested anonymity told ucanews.com that in a Buddhist-majority country where its religious leaders are expected to abstain from sex and marriage, Catholic priests and leaders from other denominations tend to get lumped together into one group.

"Many Buddhists here will not understand the difference between an Anglican priest and a Catholic priest," he said.

"In the case of Father Peiris, he went beyond marriage, embarked on an extramarital affair and then conspired to kill his lover's husband as well as his own wife," the priest said.

The church will continue to protest against the movie — which aims to be distributed in Sri Lanka and Australia — and its depiction of the priest, he said.

"Non-Catholics won't understand the difference between Catholics and Anglicans because priests from both denominations wear similar-looking attire, namely, a white robe and black belt," he added.

When the media were treated to a screening of the film last year, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, issued a strongly worded statement disavowing the film.

He stressed that Catholic priests don't marry, the film concerns the aberrant acts of one individual, and that is has nothing to Catholicism or the church.

"In this film, the Anglican priest is dressed like any other priest and this might send people the wrong message," he said.

Rutnam said he would not back down from his crusade to expose the wrongs within the church.

"Sexual scandals involving clerics have to be made public and I'm very proud to serve as an instrument toward this end," he said.

"I'm proud to have made this film because this type of abuse has been going on for years all over the world. Just because you wear a robe or a cassock doesn't mean you can sexually abuse others, especially children.

"The underlying message is that some people who are in positions of power are abusing vulnerable groups. This is happening all over the world. It happened in Boston. It is happening all over America. And it happened in Sri Lanka."

Five Catholic priests in Boston were prosecuted over a decade ago for sexually abusing minors. A film about that case, Spotlight, was released in 2015 that focused on the investigation into the scandal by The Boston Globe. That picture won two Academy Awards including one for best picture.

"This is an important topic and the film is timely as there are lots of discussions going on around the world about this issue right now," Rutnam said, adding he was prepared to take legal action against any attempt to stop the movie being distributed.

"I will never stop fighting for this film and they can't stop me making a movie about this issue," he said.

After production finished, Rutnam said the Anglican bishop of Colombo sent a letter of protest to President Maithripala Sirisena.

The filmmaker said he later met with officials from the National Film Corp, the government body in charge of Sri Lankan cinema, and defended the validity of his movie and its historical accuracy.

Father Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who heads the Center for Child Protection in Rome's Jesuit-run Gregorian University, said the issue of sexual and physical abuse by clergy is rampant in Asia and must be addressed.

"I suspect with what I can see from other parts of the world that in Asia there is sexual misconduct of clergy involving other adults and I really hope this is attended to by the ecclesiastial authorities," said the priest, who also serves as a member of the Vatican's Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

"This has to stop at once and for all. We have to raise awareness that this kind of conduct is not tolerable," he said, adding that the message was slowly getting across.

Father Zollner visited Sri Lanka in February to address priests in Kandy.

He said a group of 65 bishops including those from South Asia were informed about canonical procedure and what can be done to safeguard victims of sexual abuse at a meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences in 2017.

"I believe that in some cultures in Asia where sexuality is not talked about publicly, sexual misconduct is seen as taboo by all religions because you are not supposed to talk about something that is considered dirty," Father Zollner said.

"The bishops' conference has drafted guidelines on the best ways of dealing with sexual abuse, as prompted by the Holy See in 2011. The question is how far have we come in terms of implementing these."

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