The underlying theme of "Judgment," a well-done new movie premiering tonight on the HBO cable network, is presaged early. In the confines of a confessional, a priest tells a boy, "speak up, God can't hear you." And a short time later, on a camping trip with a group of altar boys, the priest advises them never to tell anyone but God their sins, adding, ". . . and Father, for he is here in God's place."
But how to speak up about sin, and who is listening, are the provocative questions raised by "Judgment." What if the man who is God's stand-in is himself the sinner? And how do you maintain faith when the institution of faith fails you?
Based on a true case in Louisiana, the film (at 9 p.m., with repeats Oct. 17, 21, 25 and 31) portrays a well-liked priest as an unrepentant child molester. Worse, his transgressions are probably known but are covered up by a fearful Catholic hierarchy.
It is sensitive, troubling material, made more timely by this summer's controversial study of priests and celibacy. A. Richard Sipe's "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy" suggested sexuality among the clergy is an issue that has not been realistically addressed by the church.
In "Judgment," David Straithairn plays Father Aubert, David Carradine and Blythe Danner are Emmeline and Pierre Guitry, the parents whose son first reveals improper behavior, and young Michael Faustino plays the boy, Robbie. The director/writer is Tom Topor, whose earlier theatrical films "The Accused" and "Nuts" both dealt with somewhat similar themes, portraying trusted institutions gone awry.
There is nothing leering here, nor particularly graphic, save for a relatively blunt scene when Robbie finally describes the acts committed by Father Aubert. Nor does the movie really question the priest's guilt. Indeed, in a late scene he essentially confesses, talking about "my boys" and saying "I give them all of God's love."
For the moral dilemmas of "Judgment" are not really his, but his superiors'. And the parents of the molested boys -- it turns out there are nine -- must also decide at what point they will stand up for moral justice.
Especially well presented is the difficulty when faith and human frailty collide. At first Pierre refuses to return to the church that has been a major part of his life, while Emmeline argues, "I can't desert God over a bad priest."
Yet later, after failing to receive satisfaction, she tells a priest hearing confession she does not want to leave the church, but feels "it's left me."
The first response by Father Aubert's monsignor to her letter of complaint is to duck the issue. The priest is removed from his pulpit, perhaps only temporarily, and is not even confronted with the charges. Instead, he is sent to a "house of affirmation" and the monsignor tells Aubert's parishioners at church one Sunday that "the spreading of gossip is a sin."
When the issue finally reaches the archdiocese's bishop, via a lawsuit, he is troubled by a proposed financial settlement with the parents, contending, "the church should offer them solace . . . we're buying their silence." Yet he finally agrees not to acknowledge any wrongdoing by the priest.
Such bottom-line thinking smacks of the corporate morality in such films as "Silkwood" and "Rage."
The Guitry's believe the priest deserves full prosecution, and ultimately hire an atheist attorney (Jack Warden) to pursue their case, even though the eight other families involved press them to accept the financial settlement.
"Judgment" has a few false notes. A climactic scene when Robbie decides he can tell his story comes in the face of a seemingly contrived temper tantrum from his father. There is some byplay involving another priest -- pretty obviously portrayed as homosexual -- which distracts from the action, and a funeral scene is momentarily alarming because it is not made clear who has died.
In the end, however, the film grapples pretty well with its troubling topic.