With the eyes of the world resting momentarily on the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, could not have been better timed for release.
Examining the sex-abuse scandal which took place at a Catholic school for the deaf in Wisconsin during the 1970s, Gibney (Magic Trip) pries unapologetically into the cover-ups which continue to lurk within this large and powerful religious institution, with his investigation taking him from small village parishes in Ireland, all the way to the Vatican.
Mea Maxima Culpa begins by telling the tragic story of the abuse suffered by deaf school boys at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy, which went on to spark what was reportedly the first public exposé of a paedophile priest in the US. Now middle-aged, four of the five men who had been involved in the campaign are interviewed by Gibney, with vocal translations from sign language Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke and John Slattery – although in their angry and emphatic gestures, these men are not without the ability to communicate much of their continued rage and disgust themselves.
With victims and witnesses willing to testify against the paedophilic actions of Father Murphy, it seems implausible that this particular man of the cloth should not have been convicted of his crimes long before his death. Having striven for justice for so many years, Gibney’s interviewees do not spare us the details of the abuse which they endured; many of them were unable to explain these horrors to their non-signing parents at the time. It is a story noticeably reminiscent of the Jimmy Saville scandal – but if we were shocked by the alleged conspiracies taking place behind closed doors at establishments such as the BBC and the NHS, the similarities with the Roman Catholic Church are even more appalling.
Despite the initial case-study approach of his documentary, Gibney goes on to not only explore how Murphy was protected, rather than punished, by his superiors within the Church, but also how the sweeping of sexual scandals under the bureaucratic carpet is a long-standing practice that can be traced all the way to the Vatican. Audiences unfamiliar with hierarchy of the Church may find themselves a little lost as Gibney tracks reports of priest paedophilia through bishops, archbishops and cardinals, but bottom line is clear: the scandal is not simply in the fact that such abuse was taking place, but in the way in which it has seemingly been ignored and concealed by those in positions of power and religious responsibility.
Mea Maxima Culpa does well to avoid criticising Catholicism, or even religion, as a whole, separating the actions of corruption from the beliefs of the faithful. Clergymen, journalists and lawyers are all given equal footing in speaking out about the unlawful protection of sex abusers within the priesthood, although the occasional title cards feel unnecessary – there will be very few who will be in doubt as to whom we are expected to side with in this story. The sheer number of people introduced throughout the documentary can also feel a little overwhelming, although this does indicate how widespread the awareness of the issue has become, and how little continues to be done about it.
Interestingly, the film also takes a detour into the psychological justifications made by paedophile priests, as well as the policy of ‘treating’ (rather than reporting) priests by the Servants of the Paraclete – an official Catholic organisation, no less. Overall, Mea Maxima Culpa is sensitive to the plight of the deaf men who have been betrayed by the crushing silence of the Catholic Church for so many years, whilst delivering an extremely powerful and revelatory rhetoric on the how the Church can be seen to prioritise and protect its priests – even when this has meant jeopardising its parishioners.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is released in UK cinemas on the 15th February.
There will also be a special screening of the film at 6.15pm at the Curzon Soho, with a Q&A from director Alex Gibney. For more info, click here.
See the trailer here: