In her new documentary, Zero Tolerance,
Lisa Freberg '85 explores the stories of once isolated
and silenced victims who fight to protect other
children from sexual predators.
By Saedra Pinkerton
Escorted by officials into the high-security prison in Huntsville, Texas, documentary filmmaker Lisa Freberg '85 was far from the career she set out to claim when she left TCU with a radio-TV-film degree.
She had created a dream résumé after graduation, making commercials for corporate giants Nike, Budweiser and McDonald's. She established herself in the Dallas market, then made the producer's quintessential leap, heading west to Los Angeles where her career flourished.
It was Freberg's sister, a California attorney, and a beleaguered young client she was helping who inspired Freberg to focus on a radically different genre. The decision would involve a heartbreaking journey into the lives of sexually exploited boys -- and into the minds of the Catholic priests who hurt them.
Freberg's sister took on her first abused client in 1997, years before the priest abuse scandal hit the national media. Since attorney-client privilege prevented her sister from discussing the case, Freberg turned to the court record to learn more.
"When I read it, I wept," she remembers. "The priest was a really sick man. And the leadership of the church didn't do anything to help him or the victim. I thought, ‘This needs to be exposed.' "
While still producing commercials, Freberg began filming interviews with victims and their families. She was struck by the vast numbers of children who had been abused by their church leaders and, years later, continued to suffer.
"After speaking with all those people, it is mind boggling to see common effects. Post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and drug abuse."
And suicide. Overcome by the dual impact of sexual and spiritual abuse, many victims commit suicide. Freberg's new documentary, Zero Tolerance, features one Midwestern family's harrowing struggle.
"Talking with the Patterson family (whose son committed suicide) in Kansas, they were so devastated to find that there was a string of victims before their son -- as far back as two decades. There should be a one-strike rule for priests who abuse these kids. One victim is one too many."
Zero Tolerance trumpets the movement for such a "one-strike rule," which is reflected in the settlement negotiated by Freberg's sister on behalf of that first victim, a settlement that later became the national requirement for the Catholic church.
"Part of the agreement was an 11-point mandate that the church had to consent to," Freberg said. "That policy, called Zero Tolerance, became the national platform for the Catholic church and included a requirement to publicize the names of the pedophile priests."
Effecting policy change is an important part of Freberg's vision.
"The grass-roots movement of these victims is changing the landscape of the Catholic church in America and the laws of our country. Their stories, courage and compassion are those of ordinary people making an extraordinary impact. This is what's so great about freedom of speech in our country. We really can collectively right injustices in our world."
By the time Freberg made that long, heavily guarded walk into the Huntsville penitentiary to interview infamous pedophile Rude Ks, she had documented the stories of dozens of young victims but still knew little about the motivations of their abusers.
A Dallas priest, Ks was convicted on multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault for which he received several life sentences. Though the extent of Ks' damage to the children in the communities where he worked may never be known, the Diocese of Dallas agreed to pay $23 million to his victims, whom he molested thousands of times over five years.
It is difficult to reconcile Ks' public image with the man in Freberg's film. Tearful and apologetic, Ks details his struggles with urges he says he could not control. And he believes the church failed him as much as it failed the children he abused.
In a poignant segment, Freberg speaks with Ks' mother. Hunched in her recliner, the elderly woman takes long drags on a cigarette as she tearfully tries to explain the unexplainable. His mother abandoned Rude at an early age, and he turned to the church as a substitute family.
"I feel like the hierarchy of the church has not done what they're called to do -- to minister to victim, laity and those priests," Freberg said. "I see it all as human frailty. He is a wounded human being. His life serves as a warning: Here's where we'll be if we don't deal with the issues in our lives."
When she started the film, Freberg obtained seed money from a grant and planned a limited release. Since then, the nature of the business has shifted, making widespread theatrical coverage a realistic option. With films like Fahrenheit 9/11 attracting record audiences, Freberg sees an opportunity to reach far more people.
Her talent for capturing raw emotion is evident in her interviews with victims, many of whom had never talked publicly about their experiences. She credits advances in technology with changing the landscape for documentary filmmakers.
"Ten years ago, I couldn't have done this. Now, with a mini-DVD (handheld digital video camera) instead of film, I can create an intimate and personal atmosphere, with just me and one other person."
The approach worked well with victim Carlos Perez and his father. As with many of the families Freberg encountered, Carlos' has splintered, his parents divorcing, their religious beliefs shattered.
The interview was "the first time they shared personally how this affected them," Freberg said. "His father was a deacon; church was such a foundation in their lives. Before, his commitment was to Catholicism; now it is based just on a relationship with God. He now realizes that he can have (God) apart from church."
As an outgrowth of her work on the film, Freberg created a public service announcement featuring a victim and California's attorney general, urging children to report abuse.
"One of the most important aspects of moving toward protecting other children from sexual abuse is the need for victims to report the crime so the police can build cases and one victim can serve as a witness for the others," she said.
Freberg has spent countless hours and much of her own money over the past four years on the film. Production support came from private donations and grants from Women in Film and the Pacific Pioneer Fund. The spring completion of the film was financed through executive producers Jordan Kitaen and Mikel Elliott in partnership with Quixote Studios and JBird Productions. And work-in-progress acclaim at the International Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival attracted the interest of Award-winning editor Johanna Demetrakas, who will edit the final version.
The project was a risk. For Lisa Freberg, filmmaker turned activist, the gamble has paid off.
"The victims are so inspiring," she said. "Just when I feel frustrated, someone pours his heart out and is so grateful to share.
"Some people think I'm nutty trying to expose something in the Roman Catholic Church. But this is the first thing in my life that I knew I had to do."
The greatest compliment and show of ‘success' is that of stimulated conversation, Freberg said.
"Each time I have screened my short work-in-progress, audiences have asked many questions, sought to understand the issue and asked ‘what can I do?' This is the greatest gift I've received. It's my hope that millions of people will have the opportunity to hear the stories of these courageous men and women.
"I have become a passionate advocate for child protection, and I hope my film and other work will play a key role in creating awareness and ultimately move people toward action."
To view the trailer or make a donation, visit www.jbirdproductions.com.
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