Westerly pair create prize-winning script inspired by priest abuse scandal

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Back when they were teenagers growing up in Westerly, pals Pete Jones and Justin Becker used to write stories for fun, trading often-comic tales back and forth in friendly competition.

Four years ago, when they were both 26, Jones and Becker took their writing ambitions to a new and much more serious plane. What compelled them was hearing about people - people they knew - who had been sexually abused years ago by priests.

Becker recalls hearing about one person's experience and says, "I was angry. But there was nothing I could do. So we talked about it and got the idea: let's write a script and try to get justice for all these people who have suffered through this."

In between their day jobs - Becker is a painting contractor, and Jones works for the railroad - they devoted their off hours to creating the screenplay that became "Acrobat."

The whole process took nearly a year, but then the duo was stymied over moving it forward. Submissions to a multitude of film festivals and agents stalled.

That all just changed.

"Acrobat" won first place in the New England category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

More than 350 scripts were submitted for the festival. When Jones received an email earlier this month saying that "Acrobat" had nabbed a first place, he says, "I was thrilled. I went crazy."

"We knew it was good, but that just reassured us," Becker says.

For "Acrobat," Jones, who now lives in Groton, and Becker of Coventry, R.I., pulled from research as well as from the stories they had heard. Jones describes the resulting screenplay as "sort of a combination of 'Doubt' and 'Boondock Saints.'"

"Acrobat" centers on Jackie Gorman, an Irish-American rebel whose brother - an altar boy - is molested by a priest. (The script, Jones points out, is not graphic; things happen off-camera.) When the Gorman family goes to the media, Jones says, "The church sends hatchet men out and denounces them and makes up lies about them. Jackie gets very disillusioned. He starts dealing drugs, he gets into crime. He gets very upset and self-destructive. He finally realizes the root of the problem is this priest and this cardinal that's covering up for him, so Jackie takes them on."

Becker and Jones based the priest directly on Father John Geoghan and the cardinal on various high church officials, including Cardinal Bernard Law. Law is the former head of the Boston Archdiocese who was accused of covering up for priests (most notoriously, Geoghan) who sexually abused children and transferring them from parish to parish. He retired in disgrace in 2002, but, in a move that stunned victims, he was then appointed archpriest of a major Roman basilica. He enjoyed that prestigious post until resigning last week, at age 80.

Becker and Jones worked into the screenplay some actual, nearly-direct quotes that church officials or supporters had aimed at victims' families - such as "The man you're accusing is now 89, I'm sure he couldn't harm anyone," and "This is a direct result of you not watching your children closely enough." Jones pulled from reality to ensure no one could say the script was exaggerating what was said.

Jones emphasizes that he and Becker aren't anti-Catholic. (He notes that "Acrobat" features an upstanding priest character who is trying to reform the church from within.)

Jones says, "I had one of the most Catholic childhoods you could imagine, and I had one of the happiest childhoods you could imagine. I don't think that's a coincidence. My mother is very, very Catholic. ... I was an altar boy. We went to Catholic school. I mean, I have really good thoughts about the Catholic church. When I was in elementary school, everyone thought I was going to be a priest."

Ultimately, Jones says, the priest abuse scandal is a situation where a few people - those who committed crimes and those who covered up the crimes - can make the whole church look bad.

"It's a major thing in the psyche of New England Catholics," he says. "We've all dealt with it and been really, really upset about it."

The next step, of course, is trying to turn this script into an actual movie. Becker and Jones are hoping that the film festival first-place award will help draw indie-filmmaker interest to "Acrobat."

"We know it's a controversial thing, so a lot of times, studio people are going to get nervous and not take the chance," Jones says. "We're hoping for some independent film people to hear about it and take a chance on it."

The screenplay's title, "Acrobat," comes from a U2 song. Among its lyrics: "And I'd join the movement/If there was one/I could believe in/I'd break bread and wine/If there was a Church/I could receive in/Cause I need it now." The script has that song playing as Jackie goes to confront the cardinal.

Beyond that, Jones says, the title is "a metaphor for the precarious, Hamlet-like situation Jackie feels trapped in for a lot of the script." Jackie walks a tightrope between revenge and resignation, between a life of crime and a life of servitude, between all the competing elements in his life.

As for the process of writing "Acrobat," it was decidedly a team effort. Jones says he has wanted to be a writer since he was 5 years old, but the problem was, he'd write pieces but not finish them. Having Becker as a co-writer solves that issue. Becker excels at mapping out the structure of a piece; he creates the framework and the scenes, and Jones fills it out.

Since wrapping "Acrobat," Jones and Becker have moved onto two other scripts that are completely different from that dramatic, heartfelt work - both are comedies.

Filmmakers can reach Jones at petejones81@yahoo.com.

Words of praise

"Acrobat" won first place in the New England category of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Here's a sampling of what the festival judges had to say about the script:

• "This is an accomplished script and solid writing."

• "The screenplay reminded me of movies like 'The Town' and 'The Departed.' I liked the writer's sense of humor. ... I felt myself picturing every scene and person as I was reading."

• "I could see this script completed and on the screen."

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