A&E; to Air 'The Boys of St. Vincent' : Television: Controversial Canadian film has won critical acclaim for its thoughtful portrayal of sexual abuse in a Catholic orphanage.

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Screened theatrically in a handful of American cities last year, the Canadian-made "The Boys of St. Vincent" received substantial critical praise for its incisive portrayal of sexual abuse in a Catholic orphanage in Newfoundland. Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and USA Today all listed the work in their Top 10 film lists for 1994.

But due in part to its controversial and disturbing nature, the film's distributor, Alliance Communications, had a difficult time finding an American network willing to televise it. Eventually, the Arts & Entertainment Network agreed to run it in two parts (Sunday and Monday night).

"Everybody (in the United States) was afraid to show it, so I certainly tip my hat to A&E;," said John N. Smith, the film's Toronto-based director and co-writer.

For a while, just getting the film broadcast in Canada was a daunting enough task for Smith, who has been making documentaries and feature films there for the last 20 years.

"The Boys of St. Vincent" was originally scheduled to be televised across Canada in 1992. But two days before its air date, lawyers representing four priests going to trial in Ontario on sexual abuse charges received a court injunction preventing the film's broadcast in Ontario and Quebec, the country's two most populous provinces. The attorneys argued that the telecast would diminish their clients' chances of receiving a fair trial. The decision eventually was overturned on appeal.

Smith said "The Boys of St. Vincent" never did come under fire from the Canadian Catholic Church. In the United States, however, a religious civil rights group, the Catholic League, has criticized A&E;'s decision to air it. Yet even William A. Donohue, the organization's president, has some complimentary things to say about it.

"Artistically, it's of some merit," he said. "I don't think they sensationalize it in the way someone else might have done."

Smith said he and fellow screenwriters Des Walsh and Sam Grana made a conscious effort to craft a film that wouldn't be perceived as being hostile toward the church. He says Walsh and Grana are both Catholic.

Delia Fine, vice president of film, drama and performing arts for A&E;, believes the film makes a strong statement against child abuse, not against religion.

"Although this story is set in a particular situation, it's a problem that cuts across all aspects of society," Fine said.

Part one of "The Boys of St. Vincent" takes place in the early 1970s and explores the shattered lives of some of the orphans and the warped nature of the priests who abuse them. Part two continues the story 15 years later, when a government inquiry finds some of the victims facing their former abusers and grappling with their own horrific memories.

A&E; edited a few scenes involving verbal and physical abuse. "It was extremely light editing," Fine said. "In fact, I would almost call it trimming."

Because of the film's theme of child abuse and the presence of many young actors, Smith took extra psychological precautions while making "The Boys of St. Vincent." He hired a therapist to help those involved in the film to understand and deal with its disturbing subject.

"We followed the therapist's advice in making sure that Henry Czerny, the actor who plays the role of Brother Lavin, and the little boy, Johnny (Morina), who plays Kevin, became good friends off the set," Smith said. "We saved those scenes (involving abuse) until the end, when they had become good friends and the boy understood that, 'Here's his friend Henry, and he and Henry had to play their roles.' "

The acclaim "The Boys of St. Vincent" has received has paid big dividends for Smith. The longtime independent director is in the editing stage of his first Hollywood feature. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, "My Posse Don't Do Homework" is about a high school teacher's struggle to improve the lives of her wayward students.

* "The Boys of St. Vincent" airs Sunday and Monday at 6 and 10 p.m. on cable's A&E.;

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