The central visual in Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God” is one both powerful and distressing — that of its subjects delivering their impassioned testimonials to the camera in eloquent sign language. They fought to bring to light the sexual abuse inflicted on them by a priest as children attending Wisconsin’s St. John School for the Deaf in what is the first known protest against clerical sex abuse in the U.S., the response to which and the larger, devastating problem of cover-ups Gibney traces all the way up to the highest reaches of the Catholic Church. Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger absolutely found ways to make themselves heard, but the added layer of vulnerability to their situation as boys makes the terrible breach of trust all the more apparent. These were kids with, often, no one to communicate to in ASL aside from the man molesting them. Indiewire caught up with the prolific Gibney at the TCA Winter Press tour in Pasadena, where he was part of a panel on the film ahead of its premiere on HBO tonight, February 4th at 9pm.
Had you decided to make a film on the topic of sexual abuse in the Church, or did you find this specific story first and then build from there?
I think it was both. I read the piece by Laurie Goodstein (in the New York Times) and that convinced me, because it’s not enough to have a subject that’s important, but the reason it will make a good film. That story convinced me that it would make a good film, because the crime was so horrible, because it seemed there were heroes at the heart of it, these deaf guys, and because it led to a particular story that led all the way to the top.
Did you know going in that it would go so far, all the way to the current pope?
I did in a way, because one of the rationales for Goodstein’s piece was that there were documents that connect the story in Milwaukee all the way to the current pope, to his years prior as a cardinal and to the coverup. That was a key piece of evidence. What I didn’t know when I started was just how vast and how longstanding this cover-up has been. That really did surprise me.
One of the aspects of the film that was new and striking to me was the idea of the psychology that allows for people to accept and keep secret these kinds of abuses. Was that something new to you going into it?
It’s something that’s become increasingly interesting to me both in this film and a film [“We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks”] that’s coming out at Sundance — this idea of noble cause corruption. The idea that it’s not ironic that a priest would commit abuse or even cover it up more substantially — it’s part of the package. Predators sometimes hide in plain sight where they know they have access to victims, where their status puts them above reproach and because of their status the institution will protect them. And the Church says to itself, well, there’s so much good that we do, we can’t let a few bad apples get in the way of all that goodness — so we better hush it up. In so doing they’re committing a more unspeakable crime, which is when they know there’s clear and present danger to children they not only close their eyes to that danger, they actually allow that danger to continue.
How do you see this film fitting in with the explorations of abuse of power that you’ve explored in your past work? It’s become something of a theme for you.
It does seem like maybe it’s time for me to do a romantic comedy. But maybe I’d find an abusive power relationship. It could be interesting. This one does have a lot of similarities, in structure and also in theme, with “Taxi to the Dark Side.” [There’s] one small incident, and by following the reverberations of that incident you go right to the very top. What you’re doing is looking at the mechanism of power and how it is abused and how institutions become corrupted because they believe their own bullshit. They think the end justifies the means, so in that sense I think this one is quite similar from a structural perspective to “Taxi.”
Do you see the idea the institutions can self-regulate as part of the problem?
Yes, I do. Look at Wall Street or Penn State or the Boy Scouts. Institutions can’t self regulate because they’re too imbued with their own sense of high purpose and rectitude. So we depend on other organizations for checks and balances to make sure they not only talk the talk but walk the walk. It should also sensitize all of us to look at what we all do at the institutions we work in, to see if there’s some rumbling in our gut telling us that something’s wrong.
When I did “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” I talked to a lot of people, some of whom agreed to talk to me but not on film, off the record, and they all talked about this gnawing in their gut, this feeling that something was wrong. But they didn’t listen and went right on by and in so doing they became caught up in the corruption that was the institution. Part of this is training for all of us. When you feel that something’s wrong, it does pay to listen. Imagine if that guy who saw Jerry Sandusky abusing that kid in the shower had gone to the police instead of Joe Paterno.
Do you think specifically with the Catholic Church that there’s hope of significant reform? Between your film and the reporting that’s been done in the last decade, do you see a closing of the ranks or some kind of permanent change happening?
I think there’s a short term and long term effect. In the short term, the Church shows very little evidence of reforming itself. Where are the calls to have a truth and reconciliation commission? To contact a human rights organization and say, we’re now going to disgorge all the documents we have relating to the abuse of children, to not only figure out what went wrong but how we’re going to protect children in the present and in the future? You can’t even imagine that happening, but you look at countries like Ireland that used to be so dominated by this utter reverence and acceptance of the priests and the Catholic Church. Their civil society has risen up and the parishioners who still have faith in God no longer have faith in the hierarchy of the institutions, so they’re establishing a kind of parallel system.
I’ve got to believe that’s getting the Church where it hurts most, which is in the pocketbook. They’re not giving every Sunday. I talk to a lot of my Catholic friends in the States and it’s the same thing. It’s like, you keep asking us to put money in the collection plate so that we can pay for more of these lawsuits because of the cover-up of pedophile priests. I think from the bottom up, pressure will ultimately force change. I hope, or people should discard the institution. The Catholic Church behaves very much like the big banks on Wall Street. And i think the Church assumes that it’s become too big to fail, but I think that isn’t so and that Ireland proves that point — it can fail.
How have those Catholic friends of yours reacted to this? I know for some people there’s just never going to be a way to separate criticism of the institution from an attack on the faith.
I try pretty hard in this film to draw a distinction between attacking the hierarchy of an institution versus attacking faith. This is not a film that attacks the faith of the parishioners at all. Indeed, Tom Doyle makes a very persuasive, powerful statement in the film when he says he’s the guy who gets hired for these lawsuits attacking the Church. They ask, why won’t you act for the Church and he says I do, every time, because the Church is the people in the pews — and I believe that. That’s what I tell my Catholic friends. I was raised Catholic, so those I speak to, they find it persuasive. This is not an atheist film, not an anti-religion film — it’s the opposite. It’s a crime film saying people in institutions, whether religious or not, need to be held accountable for a crime that they commit, period.
That idea that people have to connect the two seems to be part of the problem.
It is. The Catholic Church in particular is very good at making you feel peculiar — and I say “peculiar” not in a negative way, but in that you’re special because you’re attached to a religion unlike a lot of kind of Protestantism, one that has rituals. Because you’re bound up in that, it’s part of your identity, so that when someone attacks the Church you’re like, screw them because it feels like they’re attacking me — but it’s not so, it doesn’t have to be that way.
It is hard to separate, though. When I went to my wife’s church — Church of Christ, which she likes because she likes the minister — I remember saying The Lord’s Prayer. I’m routinely mouthing the words, and when you get to the end there’s an add-on that the Protestant church has done: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever, amen.” That’s not in the Catholic Lord’s Prayer, it stops at “deliver us from evil,” so I stopped too and wouldn’t say the rest. I thought, wait a minute, you don’t go to church anymore, why is it that means so much to you? But that’s not my experience. It was hardwired into my personality to resist that rather than to just do the polite thing and say the words along with everyone else.
It is hard, but people have to get over that because that’s how cover-ups work. Institutions co-opt people. You find governments doing that too: “You don’t wanna be unpatriotic, do you?” Since when is criticizing your government unpatriotic? It’s tricky, but people have to make that distinction or else we’re all done.