A film argument about the efficacy of celibacy in the Catholic Church, like that carried out by Conspiracy of Silence, was inevitable. So inevitable, in fact, that director Antonia Bird already made it in 1994 and called it Priest. Priest is still regarded as a bold, breakthrough film. Conspiracy of Silence is only distinguished in that it raises the issue once more and boasts sturdy production values. Perhaps subtlety is neither film's strong suit. Certainly, Conspiracy of Silence writer-director John Deery has intent to shock: he splatters a picture of the Pope with a suicidal priest's brains and includes plenty of profanity and the nude love scene of an erstwhile seminarian.
Deery opens on a Special General Council Meeting at the Vatican, shockingly disrupted by a protesting priest ("The Church has AIDS!...How many of you are HIV positive?!"). Three years later, at Ireland's St. Saviour's Roman Catholic Seminary, Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) is wrongfully expelled when he appears to be breaking his celibacy vow with a gay seminarian. In fact, the hardline expulsion drives the dedicated Daniel into a heterosexual relationship and a campaign against the celibate priesthood, an institution in decline. (Oddly enough, no issue is made—not even by ma Brenda Fricker—of the pre-marital quality of Daniel's sex.)
Controversies converge when a dedicated reporter (lots of dedication here, contrasting shameful corruption) begins looking into a priest's suicide. David Foley (Jason Barry) winds up getting into McLaughlin's situation, talking with the young man and his posse of voice-of-reason priests: Hugh Bonneville as Fr. Jack Dowling and Hugh Quarshie as Jesuit celebrity Fr. Joseph Ennis. While running down the suicide, Foley discovers the dead man had a male lover, also a former priest (John Lynch). Before long, the reporter's editor is quashing his story (Editor: "It's from on high." David: "From who, God?" Editor: "Oh, screw that. More powerful than God"), and David's family become targets of mysterious death threats.
Obviously, sexual activity in the priesthood is a reality (for many emotionally scarred Catholics, sex between priests would be a relative relief), but in the particulars, Conspiracy of Silence regularly tests credibility, and its salacious thriller tone cheapens the issue. The film climaxes with a nonsensical plot twist: a live, nationally televised debate that can only end in a shocking revelation, but the hypocritical Bishop Quinn inexplicably submits to a hot seat. Again and again, we get the message: priests are human, too.
Deery is interested in genuine discussion but unfortunately hammers home stilted dialogue. Bonneville rattles off impassioned clunkers: "You can't keep pushing this aside. Priests can't keep denying their sexuality, gay or otherwise...The church must evolve. We can't live with celibacy any longer—it's killing us!...Christ died for change." Conspiracy of Silence is well-meaning but has has no faith in its audience.