Original release: November 12th, health 2012
Running time: 106 minutes
Writer and director: Alex Gibney
On February 11th, seek 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, becoming the first pope to do so since the fifteenth century. With somewhat serendipitous timing, the following Friday saw the UK theatrical release of Alex Gibney’s incensed documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God. The film not only makes claims regarding the Catholic Church’s systematic protection of child abusers, but lays some responsibility squarely at the feet of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (prior to becoming Pope Benedict).
Those of us in the UK have had a continuous stream of public revelations regarding long concealed abuses recently. It’s been nigh on impossible to turn on a television set or read a newspaper in the UK without being exposed to decades of inherent corruption in covering up the depraved acts carried out by admired public personalities. That makes the subject of this documentary all the more relevant and all the more evocative – why has the Catholic Church allowed such heinous crimes to continue?
Mea Maxima Culpa takes, as its initial focus, the case of Father Lawrence Murphy who was a serial abuser of children at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee. Gibney’s film is at its very best here in that it gives a voice to victims. They relay, through sign language and additional dubbing by actors, the atrocities that took place at the school and how Father Murphy – who was able to sign with them – abused his position of power, trust, and love to repeatedly commit terrible acts. Many of the children had families they couldn’t communicate with on an intricate level and as such he was able to hide his crimes.
Putting together talking heads and archive footage, Gibney provides an exhaustive account of what happened at the school and how Father Murphy escaped punishment and was eventually, only after children’s’ parents learned of the crimes, removed to another community where he went on to continue his abuses. Murphy himself claimed to have taken the sins of the ‘rampant homosexuality’ of the boys unto himself by what he did.
It makes for truly heart-wrenching viewing as these men are finally able to tell the world about the horrors they suffered at the hands of their priest and their shock at how unwilling the Church and authorities were to act. With the victims kept front and centre like this Mea Maxima Culpa proves to be insightful, emotive and revelatory.
In the second half, the net is widened somewhat. In discussion of the abuses committed by Father Murphy, it’s suggested that representatives of the Vatican were present and aware of the situation. The documentary goes on to assert that there’s not only Church policy to cover-up such scandals, but that the church refuses to reveal the names of perpetrators to the police and instead looks to deal with the problem ‘in-house’. Plans were afoot to buy a Caribbean island to act as a refuge at which offending priests could be treated. All the while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, overseeing all investigations of this nature; he knew everything, and did nothing.
Of course, with the number of instances of abuse reported, it’s quite clear that the Catholic Church did to some level perpetrate cover-ups of this nature but it’s with these far-reaching accusations that Mea Maxima Culpa stretches itself a little bit. The piece is polemic from beginning to end but it always feels as though any contempt is thoroughly deserved; there’s just the odd occasion where it strays a little and we’re reminded to always come to our own conclusions. One such moment is when an interviewee states that the Church “selects, cultivates, protects, defends and produces sexual abusers.”
In any case such as this, it’s up to us to decide whether we’re on board with the documentary or not, and it’s certainly the case that many church groups have disputed the claims of inherent corruption as egregious. What should be remembered, however, is that the abuses did happen and they were swept under the carpet; for that, at the very least, Mea Maxima Culpa earned my fury on behalf of those boys.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.