Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Client 9 – The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer and Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room director Alex Gibney continues his investigations of power structures in modern America with a hard-hitting documentary that is framed, initially at least, around a small group of deaf people who were victims of sex abuse when they were children at the Catholic St John’s School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin from the 1950s onwards.

Using a mix of recorded interviews with the victims (who sign to the camera but are voiced by well known actors like Chris Cooper), contemporary talking head sections with various parties including church investigators and journalists, reenactments, and archival footage, Gibney portrays in harrowing detail how for more than 25 years the Catholic priest Lawrence C Murphy got away with sexually abusing pupils at the school.

But as Gibney's documentary makes clear, the scale of the abuse itself was matched in scope by the wall of silence that faced the victims when a few of them began to group together to try to get both police and Vatican officials involved in an attempt to stop Murphy from being allowed access to children and to make him face some kind of legal reckoning. Starting with simple but bold protests such as flyers and posters, they eventually took their case to a higher level, even suing the Vatican in a landmark case. Despite testimonies and repeated warnings from those American Archbishops who were aware of reports of Murphy's behaviour, the Vatican took little action through all those years of protest.

From this small group of victims, Gibney's investigation widens its aim to cover not just the entire structure of the Catholic church in America, but the very top - The Vatican itself. Gibney leaves the viewer in no doubt that the Vatican and its churches have long established practices and conventions that don't simply make it difficult to defrock and hand over abusers to the law, but in fact positively work to keep the abusers within the fold and out of the hands of the authorities. Gibney details how the Church even maintained its own absurd-sounding special sexual investigation unit – The Order of the Paracletes - whose task was not to turn the abusers over to the authorities or even to immediately throw them out of the church, but to take them under their wing and nurture them with prayer and seclusion. The Order even searched for an island to rent or buy where the problematic sexual deviants could be exiled.

Another striking aspect of the documentary is how it is unafraid to aim straight for the top. In the final third of the film, Cardinal Ratzinger, AKA His Holiness The Pope, comes under sustained scrutiny that might well leave viewers doubting his fitness for office. At one point Ratzinger was the Vatican senior official through whom all reports of sexual abuse in the Catholic church passed. Why, Gibney's film asks, did he not do more?

Though Gibney's documentary is in part built on the flood of information about abuses that filled newspapers across the world in the early 2000s, the evidence here makes it absolutely clear that sexual abuse has been festering in the church long before that. In fact some talking heads suggest it goes back to the early centuries. It has taken that long to start cracking the wall of silence, a wall in part made possible by the fact the The Vatican is still its own state, a result, ironically, of a deal made with the dictator Mussolini.

Gibney assembles interview subjects who offer a fascinating insight into how the Vatican functions behind its large exterior walls (walls that shield its vast and untouchable archives). One particular interesting interviewee is monk Richard Sipe who has made the study of sex and sexual behaviour in the Church his lifetime's work, and who functions both as an investigator and as a witness in abuse cases - his candid views on the institution he has given his life to yet will never hesitate to take the stand against are insightful indeed. Journalists and lawyers specialising in the Church and the Vatican also have their own intriguing analysis on what makes the Vatican so intrinsically dysfunctional yet so untouchable. It is however, the deaf victims of the abuse that leave the greatest impression. Gibney chose to shoot them miked, which means that the audio track picks up every slap and whoosh of their hands as they sign, allowing the force of their gestures to help convey the deep well of emotions within to the point where it almost makes the celebrity voiceovers something of an irrelevant distraction.

According to Gibney, the film was built with the structure of a crime story in mind, and certainly it maintains something of a detective novel's hook as we trawl through the levels of mystery and horror. Though undoubtedly the film will come under attack as attempting to smear a religion, Gibney's film makes a well researched and stylistically bold argument that this is not a religious issue, but one of the great institutional crimes of the century.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2012
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Fresh scrutiny of child abuse in the Catholic Church, with deaf victims bearing witness.
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Director: Alex Gibney

Writer: Alex Gibney

Starring: Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Chris Cooper, Brady Bryson, Ethan Hawke, Larry Hunt

Year: 2012

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


London 2012

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