Alex Gibney, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” (2012)
No matter what narrative or other devices are used to tell or illustrate an issue, there are some topics that are just so horrific in what they tell us about the extent of human depravity, and also so tragic in what they also tell us about how much people will deny the depravity and corruption they see, hear and know, that regardless of the style of their delivery, I and other viewers will still feel sick to the point of vomiting or passing out. Yet the topics can be so urgent that, nauseous as I feel, I know I can’t avoid them no matter how ugly they are. Such was how I felt when I heard that this documentary on paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States was showing in Sydney; even though the documentary was being screened far from home, I felt I had to see it.
I confess that there may be guilt on my part: twenty years ago I’d done some volunteer work with children in my local (non-RC) church and was unaware at the time that the man in charge in of youth and children’s activities there was a paedophile. Other people who had more to do with this youth leader perhaps were in a position to know. There were parents who had long held suspicions about the man and an incident involving him, some teenagers and alcohol gave them the green light to notify police. The man tried to flee but was arrested. I no longer have anything to do with this church and do not know if the church community has drawn any lessons from its association with this man.
Gibney’s documentary is part of a corpus of films in which he documents abuses of institutional power by people who have been entrusted by others to act as leaders or custodians of resources. The documentary centres around five deaf men who had been students of a boarding school for deaf children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin state, and who had been molested by the priest in charge, Lawrence Murphy, in the 1960s – 70s. The men’s recollections, communicated in expressive and often emotional sign language which is given voice by a number of actors who include Ethan Hawke, form a major part of the film’s narrative. The men tell of the horrors they endured from Murphy and his enablers among senior boys (many of whom he also abused) at the school, the shame they felt, the indifference they encountered from other adults who worked at the school and the difficulties they experienced in making their plight public and bringing Murphy to justice.
The documentary follows the men’s efforts in alerting the police and lawyers to their cause, and in taking their complaints to senior bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. Initially meeting resistance, apathy and denial, the men press on and lawyer Jeff Anderson, acting for one of the deaf men Terry Kohut, files a lawsuit against Pope Benedict XVI and some senior Cardinals in the Vatican.
The film dovetails into an investigation of paedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland; the case of Marcial Maciel Degallado, a Mexican priest who founded the Legion of Christ and who abused hundreds of boys and had relationships with two women; and examines the rise of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the office that pursued the Holy Inquisition for several hundred years) to the papacy in 2005. The film makes clear that Ratzinger had known of a great many cases of paedophilia among his priests during his time as prefect and pope. Ratzinger is described as a fairly sensitive individual troubled by so many incidents of paedophilia in so many dioceses across the world yet apparently unable to act against any one of these, perhaps for fear of upsetting or angering powerful factions within the Church.
There are many issues touched on by the documentary though they’re not explained in detail: for one, the forms of cognitive dissonance apparent throughout the entire period when the deaf men were pursuing their case, from the nuns who shut their eyes and ears at Murphy’s bizarre behaviour in the evenings when he visited the boys in their dormitories, and who also defended Murphy zealously (even going so far as to trick one of the deaf men in signing a document to drop a lawsuit), to the Church’s attempts to rehabilitate priests who had confessed to molesting children, and to the wider community’s attempts to discredit the deaf men and Kohut’s lawyer. Particularly repugnant were victim-blaming and other forms of self-serving bias such as Murphy’s assertions that the children were engaging in homosexual activity anyway and he was taking their sins upon himself; or that people, by being called by God to become priests, become a special kind of human and need no longer be subject to normal standards of ethical behaviour.
The Vatican’s establishment as a separate state agreed upon by a representative of Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini, the later fascist leader of Italy, in 1929 is mentioned as is also the fact that institutional paedophilia first came to the notice of the Roman Catholic Church as long ago as the fourth century CE. The Church’s own behaviour in denying, then concealing the scale of paedophilia among its priests and forcing victims to secrecy in exchange for compensation should leave viewers in no doubt that the institution is so corrupt, oppressive and evil that it is beyond repair and should no longer be supported by governments and money.
If there’s one criticism to be made about the documentary, it is that it omits investigating into how priests like Murphy become abusers and whether their training or the culture at the seminaries where they train influences their future behaviour towards vulnerable people. An incident in Austria in 2004, in which a seminary had to be closed by the Vatican for possessing images of child pornography, bestiality and sexual violence downloaded from the Internet onto its computers might suggest that an unhealthy culture that trains and conditions would-be priests into becoming sexual predators, and what that says about the exercise of power within the Church, has been perpetuated, even encouraged, in the Church for a long time.
The film is noted for its even-handed and calm tone in documenting the abuse that the deaf men suffered and their efforts in trying to Murphy to justice and casting light on the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. This approach neither glorifies the deaf men as heroes nor condemns Murphy or those who shielded him as villains. What is an obvious theme in the film is that having power and influence can corrupt even the most intelligent and sensitive of people. Maybe the problem lies as much in the power structures, institutions and networks we have created over hundreds if not thousands of years, and the seductive promise of renown they offer to humans.