Director/narrator Alex Gibney loudly amplifies several meanings of “silence” in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House Of God. There’s the familiar stonewalling silence of pedophile priests, cover-ups by the Catholic Church, and promotions for its collusive hierarchy. But more powerfully, he lets us hear through the silence of victims at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, who were continually abused there from the 1950s and 1960s on. They passionately sign about their years of anguish and about how their pleas weren’t heeded as the abuses kept going on, adding poignancy to what they realized as children–that Father Lawrence Murphy picked out children to sexually abuse whose parents didn’t know sign language so the boys couldn’t complain to them. Their voice-overs are interpreted by actors, while another victim, Bob Bolger, struggles to speak aloud for himself.
Gibney illustrates the film with misleadingly happy photos and worshipful home movies showing how Father Murphy presided over the school for decades as a dominant administrator and acclaimed fundraiser. The now gray-haired men describe the priest’s disturbing behavior (even inside the confessional, which had a hole for visible signing). At different times in their lives, they gathered the courage to first alert the authorities (to no avail) and then the community in what Gibney calls the first public protest against clerical sex abuse in the U.S. They posted warning flyers about the priest around town and later tracked him down for a personal confrontation. In between their searing testimonies, Gibney fills in the general background of how the church dealt with the problem through interviews with two ex-monks who had worked within the system, one counseling priests and the other secretly settling cases, until they could no longer stand it. (Gibney calls the latter a “fixer” for the church.)
While the Milwaukee victims were getting ignored by local police and one was even forced to recant and apologize by the diocese, a canon lawyer who worked in the Papal Nuncio’s office in Washington, D.C. admits that one of their pleas was heard and did work itself up to Rome, before being rejected. While the voluminous news coverage on the scandal has already excoriated the church’s ineffectual “therapy” programs, the documentary goes into more detail about the international Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete that was set up to help priests with a variety of problems. As early as the 1950s, it recommended the Vatican isolate the increasing numbers of pedophiles priests, even going so far as to put a down payment on a Caribbean island.
The legal depositions and (regretful) interviews with Rev. Rembrant Weakland, the former Archbishop of Milwaukee, point up additional complexities. Sometimes the church fathers stonewalled because there were other scandals they were hiding, including Pope John Paul’s protection of Father Marcial Maciel’s corrupt Legion of Christ in Mexico. In this case, Weakland was being blackmailed by a former male lover (and later came out as gay before retiring).
A bit confusingly, Gibney tries to pierce the secretive chain of command in the church hierarchy to figure out what the current pope, Benedict XVI, knew and when he knew it. He pinpoints April 2001 as when then Cardinal Ratzinger ordered that every sex abuse accusation of a minor against clergy come through his Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which must have quite an archive. But Gibney goes a bit easy on reporters on the Vatican beat, especially for Italian papers, who don’t match the determination of investigative reporters around the world—the Italians blame the medieval omerta code of silence they have to work around.
The documentary continues rambling as it expansively follows the scandal around the world, which has continued since this film wrapped, such as in the recent conviction of a supervisory monsignor in Philadelphia for child endangerment and the establishment this month of a national investigative commission in Australia. But Gibney misses some connections. For example, he dramatically uses images of deserted and crumbling churches in Ireland to cover the depth of betrayal the Irish feel about what God’s holy representatives did to children, but Amy Berg, in her more devastating Deliver Us From Evil (2006), uncovered paper work to show that the Irish church hierarchy exported priests they knew were a problem to North and South America with no warnings about their behavior. (Even Dean Wright’s recent For Greater Glory, practically a Vatican propaganda piece, points that one reason for the anti-clericalism of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century was accusations against abusive Irish priests.)
Like other wrenching documentaries on this endlessly heartbreaking sorrow, it is the Milwaukee victims’ courage (and their creative legal endeavors to go after the church even into bankruptcy court) that stands out. They are now heard loud and clear.