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January 01, 2009


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.

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.


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.

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

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


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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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

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.

"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

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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Which movie is the conversation about? Seems pretty weird.

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.

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.

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