By turns moving, absorbing and downright rage-inducing, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” is celebrated documentarian Alex Gibney’s account of sexual abuse in St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee during the ’60s and ’70s, which he then uses as a launchpad to follow the chain of culpability up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church right to the Vatican and the Papacy itself. As topics go, it doesn’t get much more incendiary, but Gibney’s (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) native intelligence and tendency to (mostly) downplay, means the film emerges as much more than the torch-and-pitchfork affair it could have been. Gibney, a previous Documentary Oscar winner and nominee, has certainly made the kind of film that could gain Academy attention once more (and HBO Documentary Films is clearly aiming for that with a qualifying theatrical run). That said, it is somewhat split into two, thematically, and while both halves are interrelated and deeply compelling, they come together into an ambitious but not entirely cohesive whole.
The first half is really about five of Father Lawrence Murphy’s up-to-200 victims, who, decades later, are recognised as the first to publicly report clerical sexual abuse in the U.S. Murphy was an immensely popular and charismatic priest at St John’s, a man who learned to sign when many of the children’s own parents did not. As a result — initially adored, almost worshipped by many of the boys — even after the abuse began he often remained the only conduit through which these marginalised kids could communicate with the very people who might have been able to rescue them. The cruelty of the situation is heartbreaking to contemplate, but the men today, signing eloquently and voiced by actors such as Chris Cooper, John Slattery and Ethan Hawke, are the jewels in this documentary’s crown. They’re a diverse group, and each one has a personal story to tell, but their bravery and flashes of mordant humour, even after all these years, are perhaps this film’s greatest contribution to the discourse. You can see it’s hard for many of them, but in articulating their struggles, they are rejecting their victimhood and it can be profoundly moving to watch. Gibney’s decision to use simple two-camera shots of them signing, often with just the ambient sounds of palm hitting palm or fist thumping breast playing out for a while before the voiceover begins, is a good example of the understated way he reinforces the themes of silence and deafness in the film without being heavyhanded. It’s doubly distracting then, when we leave this simple, evocative set up and go into one of the over-egged reconstructions: all dutch angles and demonic music cues.
Those missteps aside, the first half engages completely, because of these remarkable men, and also because of the contained narrative in which we can direct our vicarious fury at the person of Fr. Murphy. But we lose that focus in the second half of the film, necessarily, as Gibney spins the tale out from this tight core and into the murky world of the international Catholic Church. Now we learn about the Paracletes — an order set up within the Church that was tasked with ‘curing’ paedophile priests before them being reassigned to new parishes (Murphy was a ‘patient’ briefly). We get excerpts from Murphy’s own psychological reports which seem to confirm the idea that if a paedophile becomes a priest, and is taught that he is special and different and in his hands one thing can literally become another, then he might be able to self-justify in the most incredible way; that, in the words of one observer “belief in his own goodness [could] transform a perversion into a holy act.” And we hear one Vatican historian suggest that there is, in the vaults, a document that dates from the 4th century which purports to lay out rules for how to deal with priests who have sex with children. This is not a recent phenomenon.
That Gibney manages to attain the clarity he does in these segments is impressive, because the very processes of obfuscation, denial, and downright deceit that have for centuries been the working practices of the Church with regards to its scandals, hamper his investigation here. The problem is, to a certain degree, those practices are effective, and as a result, the absence of official comment from key participants lends a frustrating opacity to the central core of the film’s second half: we know that pre-Papacy Ratzinger ordered every single case of clerical sexual abuse to come to his desk, so we know he knew about all of them. But how much he was responsible for the suppression of these cases, and how much he can be held accountable for the damage that suppression caused, is not something we can know without testimony from those closer to the facts — testimony that is, of course, denied to the filmmakers. (A title at the end, to the effect that no Vatican official agreed to be interviewed for the film, serves as a dry punchline.)
In fact, the narrative of the film’s second half, and its whistle-stop tour through some of the other scandals, notably in Ireland, and other personalities (such as John Paul II’s close aide Fr. Maciel — “The Devil in Disguise”) leads to some unusual, if tentative, conclusions. Ratzinger may seem predestined to be the ultimate villain of the piece, but the film hints not so much at his callousness, as at his powerlessness within the stultifying edifice of the Catholic Church. It suggests that the very deals he had to make in order to become Pope are the ones that are restraining him from being the Pope he perhaps would like to be.
This in itself is a fascinating glimpse of the Vatican and the Holy See that we never get — not, as one interviewee puts it, an infallible, perfect society, but a messy, political place, populated with flawed, corruptible humans, where a lack of accountability to anything outside itself has led to a twisted, rotten insularism. The reminder that the Vatican has not been regarded as a state since time immemorial (it only happened under Mussolini) and that statehood is one of the reasons that the lawsuits filed against high-ranking Vatican officials can be ignored, is pointed and provocative.
And it also provides Gibney with his way back to the story of St John’s. Some of those very lawsuits originated there, with Terry, Gary, Arthur, Pat and Bob, that small crew of deaf children who lived through the abuse and found the strength to stand up, years later, when no one else ever had. It’s really only a coda, and it feels almost like there are two separate, equally important films here. But if the intrigues and corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church engage our minds, it is the stories of those men that lodge like splinters in the heart. We could wish the two halves were knitted a little more closely together but in the main, and with intelligence and compassion, ‘Mea Maxima Culpa’ thoroughly shatters the silence.[B+]
“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” opens on November 16th.