Alex Gibney has made his name with often angry, slightly polemical documentaries such as Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (about the corruption behind the then biggest bankruptcy in US history), Taxi To The Dark Side (about torture practices at Guantanamo) and the upcoming We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (which you won’t be surprised to hear is about Julian Assange and his website).
With Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God he sets his sights on the Catholic Church and their response to decades of allegations concerning priests molesting children. It does this by focussing on the St. John School for the Deaf in the Milwaukee and Father Laurence Murphy, who taught there from 1950 to 1974. Eventually it was determined that he molested at least 200 boys in that time.
Featuring numerous interviews with men who were abused by Murphy, Mea Maxima Culpa uses it as a case study to explore the Church’s pattern of denial, cover-ups and refusal to truly deal with the situation. In the case of St. John’s, this included both the church and civil authorities seemingly ignoring the allegations, sometimes expressing anger towards the accusers and allowing Murphy to stay at the school after it became clear the claims were probably true. Even when he was eventually removed, he wasn’t charged with any crime by the police and the church simply moved him somewhere else – he was never defrocked even when the truth had long-been established.
The film then links this single case into the Church as a whole and what it sees as its wholesale mismanagement and reprehensible behaviour over the issue of paedophile priests (and indeed, many will agree with it). It also has plenty to say about Joseph Ratzinger, aka the former Pope Benedict (who was still Pope when this documentary first aired in the US last hear), who was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before he became Pope, the Vatican body in charge of dealing with allegations of molestation.
To be honest here the film is less clear, as while Gibney’s style is to stand and shout ‘J’accuse’ at anyone he sees as a wrongdoers, the film seems uncertain whether Pope Benedict is a villain or not. Sometimes it feels as if it’s suggesting he idly stood by and allowed children to be abused as he was more interested in the Church avoiding scandal, while other times it seems to say he really wanted to do more but his predecessor as Pope, John Paul II, was preventing him. As a result there’s a general pointing of fingers that the Vatican was culpable and complicit in some of the worst of the scandals and cover-ups, but the film isn’t that great at specifics (although it does a good job at saying the Vatican did a lot of inexcusable things).
As with most of Gibney’s documentary it’s interesting, engrossing, angry and well worth watching. However like several of his films, there’s also the slight sense that self-righteousness has prevented it from being a slam-dunk. It should have been like shooting fish in a barrel, but while it certainly paints a very dark picture of the church’s hand in molestation, it’s so busy being furious about it that it doesn’t really drive home its case. It’s still good though and well worth watching if you’re interested in the scandals that have rocked the church.
Overall Verdict: A fascinating story of a terrible thing made far worse by an entire system seemingly set up to protect the abuser (and therefore the organisation as a whole) more than the abused. It’s unsurprisingly an angry film, but its fury sometimes results in slightly muddy arguments. Even so, it’s a powerful documentary.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac