In one of the many disturbingly powerful moments in The Boys of St. Vincent, a three-hour Canadian drama about the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church, Brother Lavin (Henry Czerny), the director of a Newfoundland orphanage, takes the soft-spoken, 10-year-old Kevin (Johnny Morina) on his lap and begins to kiss the boy's neck, all the while murmuring, ''Mama loves you.'' It's a cry at once earnest and terrifying: Lavin, a pederast, justifies his most disreputable desire by convincing himself it truly is ''love.''
The Boys of St. Vincent evokes the experience of molested children in all & its furtive anxiety and shame. At the same time, the movie plunges through the looking glass of evil to create a shockingly empathetic portrait of the monster himself. At St. Vincent, more than one of the brothers is guilty of abuse, but the main offender is Lavin, a handsome, imposingly stoic young man whose unsmiling face seems poised between revelation and rage. Czerny, who looks like a demonic Oliver North, does full justice to the torment the lust passing over into malevolent will of this compulsive sinner. The movie has the dramatic pull of a muckraking thriller, only one in which the conspiracy unraveled reveals something both sinister and ineffable. Made in 1992 for Canadian television, The Boys of St. Vincent is now playing theatrically in New York and may yet open in other American cities. But the path to distribution has not been easy. A movie that suggests that the cloistered atmosphere of celibacy, guilt, and discipline within the Catholic Church has helped to foster a pattern of depravity is not likely to go over well in many quarters. All the more reason why it should be seen. In The Boys of St. Vincent, artistry and conscience are emanations of the same cleansing, darkly truthful spirit. A