Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles this week. When Gibney was growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for boys in his Irish Catholic parish to tell each other in jest, “Oh, don’t go to the back of the sacristy,” with the punchline being that a priest might lay hands on them.
Even at the time, Gibney was less concerned for his safety than the presumption that sexual abuse was common enough for young men growing up in the Catholic faith to joke about. He fears that an implied acceptance has spread well beyond the church walls in the years that followed as more and more victims—beyond the point of disbelief—have come forward.
“We think we know what happened, but we don’t,” Gibney tells TakePart. “We don’t really know how egregious was the coverup, how spectacularly widespread was the phenomenon, and just how cruel and how criminal the behavior was. Finally, we didn’t know that there were a few heroes among us that were trying to tell us what was going on. And we didn’t listen.”
Mea Maxima Culpa opens a window into how the horrific sexual abuse that has gone on for decades in the Catholic Church may have been exceeded in the damage inflicted upon its victims by the Church’s ongoing efforts to cover up the crimes.
The first known American case of victims accusing a priest of sexual abuse occurred not all that far from where Gibney went to mass. The director tracks those initial allegations from St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee all the way up to the highest ranks of the Vatican, only to find that justice was never served.
However, unlike so many ignored or suppressed abuse cases, the Church has not been allowed to turn a blind eye to the boys from St. John’s School for the Deaf.
“I’d like audiences to take away from this one how much can be accomplished when a few ordinary people decide to rise up and make their voices heard.”
Despite their natural inability to speak, four of the more than 200 victims Father Lawrence Murphy was said to have abused during his tenure from 1950 and 1974 have been relentless in demanding the Church acknowledge the priest’s crimes. The victims papered cars outside the church with leaflets warning the faithful inside that they were in the presence of a pedophile.
The boys-turned-men ultimately launched a lawsuit against the Vatican. The suit has unveiled documents that show the failings in such matters by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office inside the Church that handles complaints of this nature that was once led by current Pope Benedict XVI.
“Powerful institutions tend to cloak themselves in sanctity, and that’s how they avoid reckoning with crimes,” says Gibney. The director has been down this road before with such films as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. “That’s how they allow themselves to cover them up. It’s a process, and it’s not ironic. It’s part of the package. That’s one of the things we have to recognize and reckon with or this stuff will continue.”
While Mea Maxima Culpa comes to some deeply frustrating conclusions about the Catholic Church and its current unwillingness to take action, Gibney believes there is still reason for hope when he sees the results of men like Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger coming forward.
“All of us get cowed by the magnitude of heroism when it comes to a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, but any of us can go there,” says Gibney. “It takes a certain amount of courage and also willingness to rudder against conventional wisdom, [but] I’d like audiences to take away from this one how much can be accomplished when a few ordinary people decide to rise up and make their voices heard.”
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Based in Los Angeles, California, Stephen Saito writes about the movies. His work has appeared in Premiere, the L.A. Times and IFC.com. He recently founded the indie film site The Moveable Fest. Email Stephen | @mfrushmore