MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD. Voiced by: Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Chris Cooper, and Aaron Ballard. Directed by Alex Gibney. Rated M (Themes of child sexual abuse). 102 min.
This is a harrowing and deeply disturbing documentary directed by Oscar-wining director, Alex Gibney. Gibney won his Oscar for the 2007 documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side”.
The film focuses on the clerical sexual abuse in the US of four men who were profoundly deaf. All four claimants communicate their experience of a particular priest who abused them as children, and the movie is a compelling indictment of the practices of the Catholic Church at that time. It arouses shock, outrage, and shame.
The film concentrates on the behaviour of a Milwaukee priest, Father Lawrence C. Murphy, who sexually abused deaf children in his school, St. John’s School for the Deaf, in the 1950s and 60s. Tragically, Murphy was adept at sign language. Murphy began working at St. John’s in 1950. Eight years later, complaints were circulating about his behaviour and reports reached the local Archbishop. Murphy was promoted to head of the school in 1963. Classmates filed reports of further sexual abuse, but no charges were laid. Persistence by the alleged victims, drawing strength from “deaf power”, resulted in Murphy being eventually removed from his school after 24 years.
Murphy was discharged eventually by the Church for “health reasons”, and he remained free until his death in 1998. Other priests attempted to take action for the abuse that they saw. Some of them informed their superiors, and some of them wrote to the Vatican. It is appalling that Fr. Murphy was buried in his vestments.
In the second half of the documentary, the film moves away from the personal testimony of those who were abused, to focus on the cover-up by the wider Church, and the Vatican in particular, about scandals occurring around it. In somewhat emotive style, it targets Pope Benedict XVI, who at the time was Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and it implicates Cardinal Sodarno, his Cardinal Secretary of State, and Pope John Paul II. The film claims that a civil lawsuit against the Vatican forced it to release documents about the Milwaukee abuse, making it obvious that the Vatican knew about the abuse, but decided not to act.
The film communicates its messages forcefully and dramatically. It argues sweepingly that with all the abuse that has occurred, no member of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church should be without guilt, and certainly not the person who sits as its head. The strength of its accusations, and there are many of them, raises the question whether the movie has an anti-Catholic bias, but its documentation of cover-up and protection, and the extent of sexual abuse are compelling.
This is a documentary that speaks powerfully to victims of abuse around the world. This is not the first film to show the failure of the Catholic Church to deal with sexual abuse by priests (see Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil”, 2006), but it is the first film to focus so pointedly on the scope of the cover-up.
The documentary uses a number of simulated re-enactments. There is a sensational element to parts of the movie, it is not entirely consistent in its chronology, and it overreaches in scope. However, the dramatic impact of the film cannot be ignored. There is extraordinary power in the factually-based interviews of the abused men. Their stories of sexual abuse are communicated in translated sign language with riveting authenticity.
This is an absorbing and well-directed documentary that exposes us to many uncomfortable truths about the practices of the institutional Church. It raises serious questions about the Church’s past and present practices, as well as its current attitudes. It shows a Church that is in sorrow, but uncertain about the way ahead.
(For a full statement by Signis, outlining in detail the broad context of this movie, see the Film Review Section of this web-site at www.catholic.org.au).
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out March 21, 2013