One of the villains in documentarian Alex Gibney’s takedown of the Roman Catholic Church, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” is the Pope, who February 11 announced his plan to resign at age 85. Did his long-term role –as Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict XVI–in covering up pedophile priests contribute to this decision?
Gibney’s email response: “Yes. But I have no proof. There was no way that the church could move forward on that issue with Benedict in office. I think that his resignation was the best thing about his Papacy. It confirmed the humanity of the office. He’s not a godlike figure. He’s Christ’s vicar: just a man with a job.”
As the BBC confronts its long-term protection of serial child molester Jimmy Savile and Penn State deals with the aftermath of its long-term cover-up of pedophile coach Jerry Sandusky, it’s clear that established institutions would rather protect themselves than young abuse victims. Gibney takes on another such establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, with “Mea Maxima Culpa,” which debuted well in Toronto, made the Oscar shortlist, and is currently showing on HBO, which co-financed the film.
Having won a documentary Oscar for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” the prolific director of “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” goes after the Church, all the way to Rome. (See Toronto Film Festival interview video and trailer below.)
Anne Thompson: You do your own narration in this film. You sound angry!
Alex Gibney: Well, that’s fair to say. Producers the Wider brothers drew my attention to a front page article in the New York Times about this case in Milwaukee of a priest who had abused 200 deaf children. And I was raised Catholic; I had been following the scandal for a long time but that case took me over the edge and made me want to make a film about the subject. It seemed to me that my contribution could be to look at a particular crime, in this case one priest Father Murphy in Milwaukee, maybe follow the crime chain up to the top. These deaf kids, now adults, tried very hard to have their voices heard even though they were deaf and no one would listen to them. So they kept pursuing this until one sued the Pope. The process of that legal battle was necessary to shine light on these uncovered documents that made clear the role the [Catholic] hierarchy played in covering up this particular crime and other crimes in this whole sex abuse story.
AT: I’ve always thought it was the bishops who were protecting other priests.
AG: The Vatican says, ‘Look, the bishops run their own show.’ This film puts the lie to that. The systems of cover-up and leniency for priests and archbishops all come down from the Vatican. We know that from the documents.
AT: You make the Pope, Ratzinger, into the villain.
AG: He’s an interesting character, not a cardboard villain. He’s disgusted by the abuse of children, he’s also the guy who ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the hierarchy in the Vatican that used to be known by the term the Inquisition. Part of the job was to investigate crimes, particularly sex crimes that came about by the abuse of the confessional. In 2001 all sex crimes came to Ratzinger’s desk. He knows more about clerical sex abuse than anyone on the planet. He had the opportunity to pursue it, but he’s a politician. Even though he regards [sex abuse by priests] as evil, he would pursue it only when the time was right. The deaf victims wanted to see this [Milwaukee priest] pay the price of having his clerical collar removed. The decision they take in Rome: the guy’s old, infirm, he’s a priest, ‘Gosh we don’t want to make him feel bad’–this guy who had abused 200 children. He had a syndicate of people watching out for children, he used the confessional, he had a criminal enterprise.
AT: Explain how you handled the signing deaf mens’ voiceovers.
AG: It was a big challenge for us to figure out how to shoot the deaf witnesses and survivors. Their language is so expressive, we wanted to preserve that. We thought to subtitle it was inadequate for hearing audiences who wouldn’t be watching the richness of their language if they were focused on subtitles. We wanted it to be as they are, subtle, close to some of their affect. So we used actors, got some good ones, John Slattery, Jamie Sheridan, to voice them, gave thought to how to shoot them. It’s complicated, we used a variable shuttler divised by Spielberg in “Saving Private Ryan,” to add flutter to their hands so you noticed the hands moving, we shot with a shallow depth of field. They look into one of the cameras while a teleprompter preserves the sound they made in person, grunts, clapping. We had to have an interpreter in another room, in a teleprompter set-up. i could have the interpeter ask a question and sign through the teleprompter to one of the witnesses. It was tough, one thing gratifying to me about the film: in addition to being an attack on the abuse of power, it enters another important and intimate world.
AT: You use the holy music to contrast what should be a sacred place with what really happens there. And you narrate the film yourself.
AG: I wasn’t aware that I was revealing that much anger, perhaps I was, there was a debate in the cutting room. The film being a grand and broad statement in some ways, intimate in others, should we hire a narrator? I don’t think of myself as having a wonderful voice, but I felt I should do it, coming out of my rage… I can write narration more pointed than we would be able to do with some third person. They’d be flatter, I can provide guidance and observation, talk about things that happen off camera. Like Jean-Luc Godard said: when you’re shooting a conversation in the room, who says you can’t look out window? Why deprive yourself of observations not in the moment of that particular scene? I wanted to have my say.
AT: You showed the film to the deaf victims in Toronto and mounted the U.S. premiere at the Milwaukee Film Festival in October, where this story is still a hot-button issue. But it is also a global story.
AG: Yes, it is globally accessible. We spend time in Ireland and Italy. There are 1 billion Catholics, the idea was to make it approachable to everyone all over the world, it is an international story. What I found poignant about the story, because of the Penn State Sandusky scandal, the Catholic Church is not unique in the way it seeks to protect itself as an institution that allows horrible things to take place because of the grandeur of what they’re trying to accomplish. Noble cause corruption is the theme: not evil men doing evil things but good and holy men allowing them–if you are holy you can do no wrong.
AT: One of your experts suggests that Father Murphy was utterly delusional about what he was doing.
AG: Murphy a sick man, you can’t blame the Catholic Church for that, he was a pedophile consumed by a sickness. In notes from a therapist who interviewed him about these relationships, he was outing their homosexuality, taking their sins upon himself, he was a predator in the worst sense of the word. Kids in the dorm, it was a boarding school, Murphy would come in at night; the children couldn’t hear him coming, they never knew night to night when he was going to tap them on the shoulder. He started abusing children in the 50s, the Vatican learned of it in the 60s and did nothing. When these men blew the whistle it was the first public display of protest in 1974, patient zero in the US.
Reenactments are important not to reenact but to give emotional power to the memories of these guys, particularly the dorm haunting them, images like the red glow of the exit sign, a statue, the crucifix on the wall, ‘why is christ letting this happen?’ I felt I had to dramatize those memories, they had an important ritualistic quality. I got a priest to help us to visualize things like the confessional, the transmutation that gives the priest his power.
The horrifying criminal aspect: Murphy was an expert signer, he raised tremendous money for the school, which was good in in terms of its ability to teach kids. He targeted children whose parents could not sign, so they could not tell their parents what was happening.
AT: What surprised you the most?
AG: I discovered a piece of footage that I never expected to find that was shocking, riveting and lluminating: one of the guys who died, he was their ringleader, decided because no justice was meted out by the Catholic Church to go up to a northern town in Wisconsin and confront them. He took with him a homemade video camera and videotaped the confrontation with Murphy, the old man. In a revealing moment, this woman helper from the Milwaukee archiocese began to attack these guys, signing back and forth, ‘No, what are you doing? Stop this, you are Catholic.’ It’s a moving moment. ‘Take one for the team,’ she was saying. “The Catholic Church is more important.’ To watch that was terrifying, to see a raw and honest exchange on video as these guys tried to get an admission from this guy who would not be held to account.
AT: What else do you have coming up? What happened to your Lance Armstrong doc?
AG: We followed Lance Armstrong in his 2009 comeback tour all along the way, putting the film on ice for some time until the resolution of the story, so we feel it’s resolved sufficiently and can move to finish it.
Universal Pictures asked me to make a doc about Wikileaks, which I have been working on for some time; we’re approaching locked picture; it will be theatrically released next year. “Park Avenue” is about rich and poor for series called “Why Poverty?” Eight directors from different countries. I did one about wealth and how it creates poverty, at one building on Park Avenue where the biggest billionaires live, then go across the Harlem River to the poorest district in the US per captia, to show how the ultra rich create poverty.
AT: Are you doing another music movie?
AG: About Fela, the Nigerian inventor of Afro Beat. It’s a cool story I’m doing with the guy who produced the Broadway musical
‘Fela,’ a mix of the Broadway creation and the real man who had a vision for world beat.
Audience question: Were you blocked access?
AG: When we knocked on the door of the Vatican no one answered. We knocked frequently. One cleric was an archbishop in Milwaukee, a leading light of the liberal wing of the American Church, who we knew spent lot of time in Rome, he was part of taking the case to Rome, we got insight from him. He was a flawed figure, because of that he’s impressive, he had his own sex scandal, an affair with a 35-year-old man, who tried to blackmail him; he took $450,000 out of the church coffers to hush him up. When it was revealed, he resigned, but his ability to see these issues make him a compelling character. Everybody should get off their pedestals, he says. Christ wasn’t afraid of humanity, neither should we be. Aside from another former priest we didn’t penetrate the Vatican.
Did you know anyone who had been abused?
AG: I didn’t know anyone abused in my parish; there was chit chat: ‘dont go back in the sacristy with father so and so, he’ll feel you up,’ it was treated as a kind of joke, ‘ah, you know, that’s what they do.’ It was accepted in a way that it would not be today.
What is the cost of these scandals to the Catholic Church?
AG: $3 billion is the high price; there were priests who warned that unless they took steps to make this right they would pay a price, and they have.