Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival, where we spoke to him about the film:
In a Q&A session after the film, the director also answered questions from the audience about the film, and for what effect he hoped it would have.
Has there been any response from the Catholic Church in America or the Vatican?
AG: Interestingly enough every time it’s reviewed there’s a blogger who works for the guy [Bill Donoghue at Fox News] who always follows it up. We had the US premiere very recently in Milwaukee. That was a very emotionally charged premiere. The church (St Johns) released a statement saying, “We feel it’s very sad that this film should be shown. This is an old story and showing this story now is like removing a scab from an old wound that only hurts the victims”. It won’t surprise you to learn that the survivors who turned out in force in Milwaukee had a very different view, so we’ll see what happens as the film goes along. It seems to be a very consistent mechanism used by the church which is to say, “This is all the stuff, we know all about this, let’s move on”.
Has there been any sex scandals involving nuns in the Catholic Church, and if so why are they not included in the film?
AG: No it’s not only the priests. I focused this story on one case and you heard briefly remarked upon the idea that the nuns were likely complicit, and indeed you saw the nuns were not only complicit but they played an active role in trying to beat back some of the survivors or victims in terms of their testimony. There have not been any prominent cases that I know of in the United States regarding the nuns.
Do you have any optimism about what the Vatican will do?
AG: No (audience laughs). I think that one of the reasons I felt so strongly about this particular story was that it had taken a long time for this story to be fully heard and for some of the evidence to come out, but it’s slowly starting to happen and prosecutions at least in the United States are moving higher and higher up the food chain. Recently an Archbishop was indicted and convicted for a cover-up of not just the original crime. And what you’re seeing in Ireland is really rather remarkable in terms of how the civil state has taken over. So in that sense I think the reverberations are being felt, whether it is a group of men in the Vatican who are sitting around and saying, “Gosh maybe we should just open up the archives and apologise that would be the right thing to do,” I don’t think that’s happening right now. But I do think there’s some momentum.
The Vatican refused to speak to you whilst making the film. Did you at any point feel obstructed by them?
AG: No I didn’t. Honestly, we didn’t publicise the film very much at all, in fact I tried to keep a low profile. I purposefully loosely structured the film in the hopes I might at some point get the Vatican to talk, and indeed there’s one point where an articulate guy in the Vatican, he’s referred to obliquely as Ratzinger’s prosecutor, who is a fascinating and very interesting character, and did do a good job of collecting witnesses before the case was summarily dismissed. So I had hopes that he would talk but he didn’t.
Is the film going to be shown in Italy?
AG: We just made a deal with a very adventurous Italian distributor who has an excellent plan figuring that they’re going to have a 30 city simultaneous theatrical distribution and then distribute it onto DVD throughout the country. They’re a very aggressive and provocative distributor and I’m confident that we can make a big noise there.
Is it true Mea Maxima Culpa was banned from the Venice Film Festival?
AG: Well it was said it was banned, I don’t know if the Venice Film Festival would say “banned”. They didn’t accept it, but I do know that the Venice Film Festival was under political pressure not to accept the film.
What’s the overall greater plan for the film?
AG: The overall greater plan for the film is to distribute it as widely as possible, and also by our websites and all the various broadcaster and all the countries around the world. It’s going to have a rather robust theatrical distribution in Ireland for example, to connect people with all of the groups who are trying to do something about this. And also its terribly important to distribute this film in Africa and South America where I think the Catholic Church is not unlike the cigarette companies in a sense that now there’s a lot of resistance to this is Europe and the United States and Ireland but there’s a lot more potential for abuse in South America and Africa. So we’re hoping to get it widely distributed.
How much do you feel how this scandal affected the faith of Catholics? Did you consider addressing that in the film?
AG: I wasn’t so tempted to focus on how it affected those people as I was trying to draw a distinction between religious faith and crime. And I tried very hard in the film to draw a distinction there, and to indicate that this is a crime film not only about a particular city in Milwaukee but how organisations systematically abuse their power and cover it up. So in that sense I see this as a pure crime film about the abuse of power.
The UK is currently dealing with a sex abuse scandal involving former television presenter Jimmy Savile. The BBC is being investigated immediately regarding the incident. Is there any chance that could happen with the Vatican?
AG: In the United States we have a similar kind of crisis at a university called Penn State. There was a rather public crisis about a sex abuse case with an assistant football coach, and his role was covered up for many years by the university, by the athletics department, and indeed the top hierarchy. It’s similar but they’re paying a huge price. I think the big difference, and what is starting to shift with the Catholic Church is that civil authorities are now holding the church to account and nowhere is that more so, interestingly, than in Ireland. I mean that’s really flipped because there was very little separation between church and state on purpose for all sorts of nationalistic reasons. But I think you’re starting to see that shift throughout. At the same time I would say that the church, while it is peculiar, is not the only organisation that abuses its power. You see this pattern happening over and over again. One of the interesting things to me about this film was in following the Milwaukee case you can see certain instances but only by comparing them. That’s why I was so astounded when we discovered the Verona [sex abuse] case. Not only was it abuse but it was a deaf school. Then you can see how often these abuse cases and the cover-up happens all over the world. It’s looking for patterns in organisations. Well there may not be any organisation like the Vatican, but if you’re looking for abusive power that’s what you look for.
Have you had any contact from deaf organisations regarding the film?
AG: This is a world I’m ashamed to say I knew very little about. I went into it very much a neophyte and tried to represent it as best I could. It was a tricky thing for me and we’ve gotten a lot of support so far from deaf organisations. We’re working very hard to come up, at least within a theatrical context, with either very technically sophisticated ways of having captions that people can see without the hearing folks being disturbed, or having a caption system that actually takes places underneath the screen. Also I was very concerned along the way with how the presentation would work because I really wanted the cinematic presentation to work both for hearing audiences and for the deaf, and it was a very complicated process of how we ultimately ended up filming those interviews in a way that tried to do that. Initially very much resisted by the deaf we said that you only shoot in one very wide frame so that all the gestures can be seen, and indeed during the interview one of the interviewees rightly said, “Well, why are you putting a microphone [near me], why are you getting so worked up about this. I’m deaf, I can’t speak”. But the reason was to show that struggle of the deaf being heard, and there’s something about the sounds which we hear, which kind of represents that frustration. Most of the interviews, if this is interesting anybody, [shooting] those interviews with four cameras. Also I had to be in a separate room in order to capture that sound, and we had a simultaneous translation of interpreters going on at the same time.
Is it really possible that whilst all these sex abuses cases were going on, the police couldn’t have got more actively involved?
AG: The fact is until very recently, principally 2002 in Boston, the police almost always looked the other way. And it often had to do with heavily catholic cities where the church was at its most powerful. There are also, not surprisingly, heavily catholic police forces, and there were many excruciating examples that I could have included but in one example here, that one time the kids, them kids went to the police and said, “There’s abuse going on at the school”, the police promptly went back to Murphy and said, “Well what about this abuse? The kids are saying there’s abuse going on.” He says, “Oh, don’t worry about it, don’t listen to them, they’re retarded”, and the investigation closed. So the fact is it’s a rather appalling record, as it was in Ireland. It is interesting the way raising one’s voice can change things, as it has slowly done, so that now in Philadelphia there was a very aggressive prosecution of priests and indeed monsignors and bishops over the cover-up. So it has started to change, but mostly people rose up and said, “What the hell’s going on here, my children need to be protected”.
Does it worry you that some priests who were falsely accused are going to get caught up in this?
AG: Well I think that is a concern, it’s a concern that the church raises, and it’s a concern the church raises about opening the archives. There’s a really pretty easy way to solve that problem which is to work with human rights groups or other legal organisations to make sure the names are properly redacted so that you can, and hand it over to civil authorities and have a proper investigation so that innocent people aren’t improperly accused. There are ways to do it. But frankly there always has to be a concern for that. You have to be careful that just because somebody says there was abuse, you need more than that.
As someone raised catholic, did these revelations have any impact on your own faith or beliefs?
AG: Well it would be fair to say that I’m a significantly lapsing catholic (audience laughs). But it did cause me to reflect honestly on the reason that it is often so difficult for these crimes to come to light, because when it seems like, and one reason why I tried so hard to make a distinction between faith and crime, because it goes to the heart of your identity. I can remember going to my wife’s rather touchy-feely vague Protestant Church and reciting the lord’s prayer which I don’t hold much stock in now in any event. But I recall getting to “Deliver us from evil,” and you get to the protestant version, “For thine is the kingdom, blah, blah, blah,” and I recall myself stopping abruptly. “No, no, no I’m catholic, I’m not going to say that expression. The protestant version.” But then I thought, “Well wait a minute, what is that about? Why are you holding on to that aspect of faith?” And of course I realised well its part of who I am, it’s part of how I grew up. And so inevitably that aspect of identity is something that is deeply and emotionally felt and something that the Catholic Church I think was very good at, in part because of the peculiarity of the liturgy. Because when I grew up my father sued to sign the creed to me in Latin, and I used to like to go to Latin mass which I still find very beautiful. And so hearing criticism of the church is like hearing criticism of yourself, and it’s how you find that separation between an attack on the church and an attack on yourself as an individual, because that’s who you are.
Read our review of the film here.