If you thought that Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil had extracted every last word on the issue of child abuse in the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney proves with his new film that there’s still plenty left to be infuriated about.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God takes us back to 1972 with the first major accusation of child abuse, the one that started it all and helped to de-stigmatise the stance of accusers within the framework of the Catholic Church. Distinguishing itself from being just another expose about the Church’s well-documented shadier side, Gibney’s film broaches an unexpected angle, given that the four accusers from the landmark 1972 case against Father Lawrence Murphy were a group of deaf boys.
Of course, abuse is heinous on any level, but the added degree of insidious perversion in this instance is unmistakable; Murphy, who is said to have abused 200 deaf children at Milwaukee’s St. John School for the Deaf, has an even more heightened position of responsibility to these children. Murphy was able to heighten his trusting bond with the children due to his ability to sign, and deliberately preyed on students whose parents themselves could not understand sign language particularly well, lessening the chance that he would be exposed.
The four boys, now middle-aged men, have agreed to tell their story to Gibney, with actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, and John Slattery providing a vocal translation of their signed statements. In lesser hands, this might feel like a gimmicky move or even detract from the gravitas, but in effect, their stirring performances give a voice to the dramatic import and the tragedy of it all. Gibney chooses four great actors to vocally convey their torment, and above all else, it’s not a navel-gazing exercise; it’s immeasurably noble.
True to form, Gibney doesn’t skimp on the harrowing details, painstakingly detailing the inner-most grotesquery of Murphy’s abuse, while examining the psychology of celibacy in the priesthood. Most crucially, we observe those forces that allowed the abuse to flourish, the moral infrastructure in which even the police would not take complaints seriously, and parents would chide their own children for making an accusation, possessing an unwavering belief that a priest could not be capable of such behaviour. Similarly, nuns would ignore the abuse and older boys would even be trained to soften the younger kids up for Father Murphy.
We follow this through to the still more disturbing area of cover-ups, specifically the multi-million dollar budget allocated to quieting these cases, the fixers who travel the country cleaning up the messes, and the Catholic deference to snuffing out scandal rather than stopping the behaviour outright. Gibney provides enough balance that we can see that there are those who tried to stamp out the problem – one, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, attempted to spiritually cleanse the offending individuals, and even suggested sending them to an island where they could no longer abuse – yet they are ultimately mostly powerless to the shackles of their duty.
And it goes all the way to the top; Pope Benedict XVI (who as I write this has just resigned from the position) took it upon himself to have all data relating to child abuse in the priesthood land directly on his desk, and is painted as an unexpectedly complex figure, torn between loyalty to his faith and doing what most would term the right thing. The resultant feeling is that to really confront this problem head-on, it would require a Pope with the courage to publically shame the abusers, and with a new Pope impending, hope for that will surely be renewed. Perhaps most chillingly of all, one whistle-blower asks – what would the Papacy have done if a priest had committed murder?
Constructed with the ruthless efficiency of a crime thriller, Alex Gibney crawls through the corridors of power and discovers that the hierarchy not-so-subtly echoes that of the Mafia. The chapter format is invigorating and sustains the tension without seeming exploitative, while Gibney examines the crisis from a multi-faceted enough perspective such that the result is not a reductive smear piece.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God aired last week on HBO in the US and is in UK cinemas this Friday.
This article was first posted on February 11, 2013