Alex Gibney has never been one to shy away from controversy. He was launched to the forefront of the documentary scene with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a scathing examination of America’s largest and most corrupt energy company that went from boom to bust almost overnight. In 2007 he won an Academy Award for Taxi to the Dark Side, a film about how through examining one Afghan man’s death at the US army’s hands discovers how the entire country’s role in torture can be condemned.
Both those films dealt with crime inside institutions, and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God isn’t dissimilar, with Gibney choosing the Catholic Church as his target from the involvement and systematic refusal to recognise child sex abuse cases for decades. These allegations shocked the world when they were uncovered in 2012, but what Gibney wants to show is that the abuse of children had been occurring for years, and had continued because the church had refused to deal with the problem. The Vatican peddled the idea that ‘a few bad apples’ had let the side down, but Mea Maxima Culpa goes to great lengths to show that the great crime of the Catholic Church is both their secrecy and their refusal to accept responsibility.
Similar to Taxi to the Dark Side, the wider examination of the church gravitates around the personal lives of four deaf children who were abused at a Milwaukee school in 1972 by Father Lawrence Murphy. The victims, now older men, recount their abuse to camera through communicating in sign language. The horror of what happened comes through their exasperated movements and gestures, the anger that their cries can never be vocally expressed. Despite communicating visually, a microphone has been used during the interviews as the slap of hands and the quick movement of arms are all picked up, highlighting the physical effort these deaf men apply to describe the violence done to them.
To supplement these interviews, their childhood is brought alive though various reconstructions of life at the school, a subjective nightmare where stained glass windows cast a hellish red light on the priest. Shot from low angles where his face is obscured, the priest is transformed through these reconstructions into a monstrous figure that the deaf children refer to as a ‘wolf’ constantly prowling in search of prey. The flashbacks not only vividly realise the victims’ childhood trauma, but also serve as visual scars in the film. As one of the deaf victims recounts going into confession with Father Murphy, the rapid montage of reconstructed shots highlight the violent memory he still holds.
After leaving school the former pupils try to have Murphy arrested but to no avail. From going to the police and getting in touch with the archbishop of the state, the film then explodes out to reveal how Murphy’s actions were known in the Catholic Church all the way up the Vatican, as they ruthlessly suppressed all reports of child abuse.
If this were an isolated incident it would be a scandal, but as stories of sex abuse spread across the US, Ireland and Italy itself, the whole situation becomes something that even Dan Brown would call incredible. As one Italian journalist tells the camera, “It’s not a conspiracy, it’s worse”. It’s the systematic suppression of these crimes by a Catholic Church all too aware of what’s going on. The Current Pope Benedict XVI, back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, received every single sex abuse case right to his desk in Rome. As one journalist points out, the current pope has more knowledge of sex abuse within the church than anybody else.
So why does his holiness stay silent? Surely in his now all-powerful position he can fully disclose the corruption inside the institution? In a similar way to Enron, Gibney shows that institutions crush the individual whether you are at the top or the bottom. The Pope is powerless to prevent these actions as the priority is always the interests of the Church, and there is no one to hold them to account. These priests, who clearly need psychological help for their actions, are allowed to operate within the Church as they have deluded themselves into believing they are outside the system and what they’re doing is morally right. Father Murphy reveals this in a letter where he claims he perpetrated the heinous acts as a way of ridding the children of their latent homosexuality and taking on their sins.
What’s so dangerous about these delusions are they don’t just affect the individual, they trickle down and affect all those beneath them in the pyramid. Children all over the world have been bought up with what their parents perceived was the safety and strong moral values of the church, only for their faith to be destroyed and their children’s innocence robbed because of such scandalous crimes.
Mea Maxima Culpa documents this crime saga with great authority. The levels of corruption it exposes are so gargantuan if the Vatican ever did release its archives it would probably take decades to discover all the horrible details. But these archives will never be released. The film briefly touches on the Vatican City’s unique position as a state, removing it from any civil inquiry and meaning that no other country can hold the Pope accountable. By this point the film has already covered so many areas that the question of why a dictatorship exists in the heart of Europe remains unresolved.
Sensibly the film always returns to the deaf children in Milwaukee, giving a film full of cold and calculated corruption a beating heart. Their speech to the camera is a way of them finally expressing the hurt they have felt for so many years, not just at the abuse, but the fact their pleas have been ignored for so long. An attentive, angry and thoroughly inquisitive endeavour, Mea Maxima Culpa is a film that champions the individuals in life who are silenced by the system, and emphatically declares that they will be heard.
Watch our interview with Alex Gibney at the London Film Festival 2012 here.