Sundance crowd embraces Toledoan's claim of abuse

Toledoan Tony Comes is shown in the documentary 'Twist of Faith,' which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.
Toledoan Tony Comes is shown in the documentary 'Twist of Faith,' which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival.

PARK CITY, Utah - Tony Comes saw the poster and cringed. Behind the makeshift box office at the Prospector Square Inn, a movie poster was stapled to a bulletin board, and the picture was Mr. Comes himself, hands jammed in his pockets, staring sullenly forward.

The tagline on the poster?

"Sometimes hell is right here on earth."

Here, meaning Toledo.

The poster was for Twist of Faith, a new documentary that veteran filmmaker Kirby Dick made for HBO about Mr. Comes and his lawsuit against the Toledo Catholic Diocese.

It's the most high-profile feature film ever to spotlight Toledo, and the setting was the Sundance Film Festival, where the feature debuted Sunday to a standing ovation, along with sniffles and scores of eyes gone red from crying.

Mr. Comes and his wife Wendy, included.

But before the start of the film - which is in the documentary competition at this influential showcase for new and original movie-making voices - Mr. Comes spotted the poster and was so nervous that someone would look at it and then down at him and do a double take, he turned away, and walked outside and paced and smoked.

"This is very strange, very surreal," he said. "For anybody who's never experienced it, it's like going to Mars without having to climb into a rocket."

The film, which played to a nearly full house, recounts how Mr. Comes, a Toledo firefighter, filed a lawsuit in 2002 alleging that he repeatedly had been sexually abused by former Toledo cleric Dennis Gray.

His was one of 11 complaints filed in Lucas County Common Pleas Court accusing Mr. Gray of sexual misconduct from 1978 until the mid-1980s.

Mr. Gray left the priesthood in 1987 and was dean of students at Rogers High School until 2002.

Mr. Gray was forced to step down in September, 2002, after an article in The Blade revealed allegations of sexual misconduct during his career as a priest. Most of the cases were settled out of court; Mr. Comes received a $55,000 settlement.

The diocese is not quoted in Twist of Faith, and Mr. Gray, who has denied the accusations, is not interviewed. But he is in the film.

In the film, a video deposition of Mr. Gray from June 23, 2003, becomes a motif - it's the first image in the feature, and snippets of it are revisited again and again.

The last thing you learn is that Mr. Comes and other victims have settled with the diocese. The final shot is of the diocese's downtown office.

What's in between is why Sundance programmer Trevor Groth said Twist of Faith is in Sundance.

"I've seen films handle this on a national level and films that take it on a personal level, but never one that does both and gets at what has become, I think, a global epidemic of sorts," he said, standing outside the theater watching the crowd file in.

Filmmaker Mr. Dick flew to Toledo from Los Angeles a number of times between December, 2002, and late winter of 2004, and shot the rest of the film with a small crew.

What they captured is a family in turmoil. Mr. Comes argues on camera with his mother, Sandy, who tells him she continues to go to church and put money in the offering basket. "Money you put in that basket," Mr. Comes tells her, "is paying the attorneys who are fighting me."

We meet other Toledoans who filed similar suits against the diocese. We watch some confront priests and demand apologies or a response, and we see Mr. Comes' own friends argue with him that his lawsuit will do more harm to the church than good.

As for Toledo itself: Manos Greek Restaurant plays a small role during a dinner scene. The Anthony Wayne Bridge gets a close-up. There's footage of the funeral of Bishop James R. Hoffman, interviews with the Blade reporters who broke the story, and a handful of clips of television news reports.

One scene that had the audience stone silent finds Mr. Comes, with camera in hand, walking down his Toledo street in a snowstorm, his feet crunching on the soundtrack, and showing us that Mr. Gray lives only a handful of houses away.

"That's where the monster lives," he says.

When the lights came up, and Mr. Comes, his wife, and Mr. Dick walked to the front of the theater, the audience applauded for a couple of minutes. Mr. Comes' eyes were puffy and red.

"I commend you," a woman in the audience said, standing up. "You've done a great service for a lot of people."

Mr. Comes plunged his hands in his pockets and looked down.

"I didn't want money for this," he told the audience. "I didn't want any pomp and circumstance."

He rolled his eyes, nodding to all the Sundance logos in the theater and got a laugh. "I didn't know how to talk about this for so long, but seeing a couple of hundred people sitting here and listening now - that goes an awfully long way."

Outside the theater, a crowd mobbed Wendy Comes. One man told her his own father was abused. There were hugs. Rory Kennedy, the documentary filmmaker and daughter of the assassinated Robert Kennedy, congratulated Tony and Wendy. Mr. Dick, who's had three previous documentaries at Sundance, said the initial reaction was heartfelt and effusive.

"It was way more emotional this time," he said. "Way more emotional."

"Well, I didn't hear anything bad," Mr. Comes said as the theater emptied and the audience rushed off to other Sundance screenings.

"There were people in there crying harder than I was. There were people who referred to myself and my wife with words like 'courageous' and whatnot. And that makes me uncomfortable. But I'm glad that's their take from the film. It helps feel better about what I chose to do here and why I choose to do it.

"For a person who has no faith, I put faith in filmmakers I don't know, but this thing is proof that you can trust people."

At the moment, Twist of Faith is being shopped around Sundance with the hope it will be picked up for theatrical distribution, Mr. Dick said.

And this is the right place: Last year at the festival, Super-Size Me, a documentary about a man who eats McDonald's food for 30 straight days, was acquired at Sundance and went on to become a theatrical smash - particularly considering it's a documentary.

Sundance, which was co-founded two decades ago by Robert Redford, has become a bellwether for emerging talent, and past films to break out of the festival have included The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite, and Shine.

If Twist of Faith finds a theatrical distributor, sources close to the film say it will probably happen after the festival ends Sunday. Mr. Dick said there's been interest, but wouldn't say from which companies.

And if it doesn't happen, it's expected to play on HBO sometime in the spring. But even that air date depends on whether the film receives an Academy Award nomination this morning; it's been on a shortlist of 12 contenders for a best documentary Oscar.

Whatever the outcome, how does Mr. Comes - who attends Our Lady of Perpetual Help church - think it'll go over in Toledo?

"Good question," he said. "I think it's going to play tough all over."

"We've had a lot of support in Toledo," Mrs. Comes added. "Especially in church."

"The people who truly care will be there and if they fall by the wayside, I still have my wife and my kids," Mr. Comes said.

In tomorrow's Living section: More on Twist of Faith and the documentaries of Sundance.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

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