Alex Gibney, the Academy Award winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), has returned with another hell-fire of controversy documentary in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a revelatory and deeply upsetting probe into shocking accounts of unpunished (and ignored) child sexual abuse and a damningly potent indictment of the Catholic Church’s cover-up.
The chief target is Father Lawrence Murphy, claimed to have sexually abused about 200 young deaf boys – and specifically ones who could not communicate with their parents via American Sign Language - at a Milwaukee school for the hearing impaired dating back to the 1950s. But Gibney also sets in motion an expose on the highest orders of the Vatican, including the recently retired Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict 16th) who, before taking on the role as the Bishop of Rome, was assigned sole chief investigative power over cases of suspected pedophilia. Ratzinger’s lack of action was influenced by a century-spanning stipulation by the Vatican that known cases of pedophilia be quieted and taken care of internally. This involved relocation of the priest, psychological treatment, even proposed secluded island ostracism. Any perpetrators were to be protected from criminal charges. Any victims who desired justice were bought out.
The reflective accounts of some of Murphy’s young victims (including four now middle aged men) form the emotional backbone of Gibney’s film. Their protests inspired others to speak out about similar experiences they had long felt obliged to keep a secret. Their childhood naivety of feeling that ‘if the priest is doing this to me I must have done something wrong’ resulted in a sense of pressure to keeping their experiences a secret. They continue to fight today to have not only their abuser (and others) criminally charged but also the Catholic Church to be held accountable for crimes against humanity. Lawyers and Vatican reporters are interviewed to offer their opinions, and Gibney ensures the argument isn’t one-sided by bringing in defenders of Ratzinger, and those who try and justify Murphy’s own defense of his actions.
The victims have been forced to live with their mistreatment. These cruel and unsavoury practices, sins of the worst kind committed by those who have vowed to uphold everything pure and sacred in Catholicism, seem to be in abundance and have been allowed to foster under the pretenses of holy protection.
Gibney captures the men sitting against a black backdrop, and shoots them front-on with low lighting, highlighting the intense emotions on their faces and their animated signing. Rather than subtitle what they are communicating, Gibney uses the voice-over acting of Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery and Jamey Sheridan. If I had two minor issues with the film, one was the use of this acting. I felt like the tone of the men’s voices often didn’t match the victim’s heartbreakingly honest revelations. The second was the dramatized recreation of Murphy’s predatory entry into the boy’s dormitory by night. We understood the fear that these boys experienced through the accounts. I don’t think we needed to see the monster preying too.
Outside of the United States the problem has become a rampant one. Gibney chronicles other high-profile cases, including an Irish priest who was known to be Ireland’s most notorious pedophile, and Marcial Marciel, the founder of the Regnum Christi movement who served directly at the side of Pope John Paul II (who preceded Benedict), and was even accused of abusing two of his own children.
This is a meticulously researched and coordinated investigation – and the use of archival footage, highlighted documents, and exclusive coverage of the boys (now men) confronting Murphy at his house asking him to turn himself in – results in a film full of twists and revelations. It repeatedly inspires shock and outrage and I was left in tears by the conclusion. The accounts of Father Murphy’s actions are harrowing to hear, but what truly shocks is the acceptance of these activities as natural and ‘expected’ incidents within the priesthood and the immediate sympathy assigned the credentials of the perpetrators, with little assigned the victims.
Ratzinger’s recent retirement from the top position has aroused suspicions and considering the film’s claims – and not to mention other independent investigations – about his knowledge of clerical pedophilia and his decisions to uphold the laws of the Vatican, there is reason to believe they are connected. With Pope John Paul II also stained in the documentary, Pope Francis is coming into a position rife with controversy, but with the demand that serious consideration be given to this very serious problem, lets hope some finally is.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.