About Hell Fire and Brimstone

“I was inspired by my brother’s strength of spirit in surviving his abuse,” says Joe Cultrera. “His story was unlike any I had seen in the media. I thought a detailed film about his and my family’s experience would prove healing and freeing for others.”

Paul Cultrera and his siblings were raised in an Italian-Catholic family in Salem, Mass., and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. From an early age they were immersed in the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church.

“There was the Catholic Church, and everything else was hell,” Paul recalls. “Everyone beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church was doomed. Everything was presented to you in terms of sin.”

At 14, Paul, an altar boy at St. James Parish, came under the guidance of Fr. Birmingham. Birmingham was young and friendly, often taking the boys on trips and inviting them to the rectory for Friday and Saturday night pizza parties. It was during confession that Paul’s relationship with Fr. Birmingham changed. Confessing to masturbation led to private “counseling” sessions at the rectory, where Paul was sexually abused. Birmingham also abused him during nighttime rides in Birmingham’s black Ford Galaxie and on trips out of town.

“When you’re totally wrapped up in the environment of sin and guilt, you internalize it yourself. At least I did. I decided it was my fault. It was something the matter with me,” says Paul. “You think you’ve done something really bad. So you become very adept at drawing a huge circle around that part of your life.”

Paul would keep his secret for nearly 30 years, until he decided to finally confront the Church and launch his own investigation into whether the Archdiocese of Boston had covered up allegations against Birmingham by moving the priest from parish to parish, thereby placing more children in danger.

He began to place advertisements in the newspapers of the various towns where Birmingham had been posted. The advertisements asked the simple question, “Do You Remember Father Birmingham?” The dozens of responses he received were his first indication that he was certainly not Birmingham’s only victim.

A homegrown detective story, the film follows Birmingham’s trail and the cover-up instituted by his superiors. But balancing faith against outrage, the Cultrera family survive it all with their humanity and humor intact.

“The film created an opportunity for my family to deal with these issues in a very intimate way,” says Joe. “We have emerged as a more understanding unit. One of my hopes is that the film will inspire other families to talk.”

COMPTON, Calif. — It was a bittersweet Sunday afternoon in Compton, a small city on the south side of Los Angeles. Keishia Brunston, a young African American woman, called together friends and neighbors for a backyard barbecue to raise money and call attention to the police terror that is being visited upon her community.

Brunston has formed the Justice for Deandre Brunston Campaign in response to the police killing of her 24-year-old nephew, Deandre, who was shot and killed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies that patrol Compton and the nearby area of Willowbrook on Aug. 24, 2003.

Deputies had responded to a domestic disturbance call where Deandre Brunston lived. Afraid for his life, Deandre, who was unarmed, jumped out of a second-story window and fled on foot. The deputies cornered him nearby, and handcuffed him. They then unleashed an attack dog on him, and began shooting. When it was over, Deandre had been shot a total of 22 times, and over 80 rounds of ammunition had been discharged from three police guns.

The deputies didn’t just shoot an innocent African American man; they also shot their own dog. After they realized that they had shot the dog, they called for an ambulance and airlifted the dog to a nearby veterinary hospital in Norwalk, where the animal eventually died, while they left young Brunston on the street to bleed to death.

In response to this tragedy, Keishia Brunston has brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“We need people in the courtroom,” she told those gathered at the July 10 barbecue. “Sheriffs were put in Compton and they replaced the Compton police force. The sheriffs are not from our community. We didn’t get to vote on putting the sheriffs in our community. They are definitely not out to protect us. They’re out to kill us.”

Brunston pointed out that this “genocidal” policy of the police is targeting people of color. “The sheriffs are an invading army in Compton,” she said. “They are trying to close the hospital and they are trying to close the college. We need to educate the public about what is going on.”

The solution that is being put forward by the Community Coalition for Control of the Police is for civilian police review boards to be established in each of these communities. Another group being advised by the ACLU is calling for federal oversight of the police agencies involved, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

There are a total of 87 smaller cities in Los Angeles County that surround the City of Angels. If you venture into any of these communities, you quickly discover that they are reminiscent of the old South before the civil rights movement. Compton is one of those communities where police violence against law-abiding citizens goes unchecked.