Director: Alex Gibney
Running Time: 106 mins
Release: February 22
Despite its obsession with secrecy, there is no place left for the Catholic Church to hide after Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a searing investigation of widespread sexual abuse that gives a voice to those who could not be heard and implicates some of the highest-ranking Vatican figures in an unseemly dereliction of duty.
The documentary features interviews with former pupils of St John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin who suffered repeated sexual abuse at the hands of Fr Lawrence Murphy, who worked at the school from 1950 to 1974. Murphy was popular among children as he was able to sign and communicate with the pupils. But he was also a sexual predator who carefully selected his victims. The four former pupils recall in detail incidents of abuse that took place at the school and tell of their many efforts in later years to bring Murphy to to account for his actions.
Using this fight for justice as a springboard Gibney focuses on the many other instances of abuse that came to light in the United States and Europe, especially over the past 15 years. He travels to Ireland to revisit the case of singing priest Tony Walsh, a serial abuser based in Ballyfermot. Despite the repeated protestations of parents, church authorities dithered over what to do about Walsh, just as they did over Murphy and countless other offenders. Pertinent questions are asked about what was known by important figures within the church hierarchy—such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope John Paul II—and why their reaction seemed to be governed by a desire for containment and an over-riding impulse toward self-preservation.
Although the scope of the film is expansive, Gibney begins at the micro level with the stories of the four victims who attended St Paul’s. As they recall their experiences, we see pictures of the school as it was decades ago and of the children who attended, as well as some chilling Super 8 footage of Murphy interacting with pupils during his time there. There are also reconstructions of Murphy prowling through the dorm at night, carefully selecting his victims as those who suffered describe their feelings of fear, shame and disgust.
In Ireland there is footage of Walsh singing Elvis songs and striking images of dilapidated churches in a land where church attendance has fallen dramatically due to the corrosive effects of institutional irresponsibility. Although the film then moves on to relations of power at the global level, Gibney later returns to the people who attended St John’s, clearly mindful that this is primarily a film about individuals and the need for their stories to be brought to light.
Mea Maxima Culpa charts the story of a few brave individuals’ fight for transparency against a church with a long history of protecting, cultivating and defending abusers. The primacy of the institution is of utmost importance, as evidenced by the refusal of any church figures to engage with the documentary makers. What we’re left with is a sorry image of a supra-individual structure that remains outwardly impervious to victims’ demands while it hurtles into a prolonged crisis of relevance.