Mea Maxima Culpa

Alex Gibney's documentary investigation into clerical abuse within the Catholic church reveals the extent of the outgoing pontiff's complicity

Last week’s announcement by Pope Benedict that he would resign at the end of the month brought the Catholic Church, and its hierarchy, once more to the forefront of the public consciousness.

It is with no little fateful timing, then, that Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Alex Gibney’s incisive, thorough investigation into clerical abuse, arrives this week at Queen’s Film Theatre.

Indeed the current pontiff, in his previous life as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, looms large over much of what is referenced in Gibney’s work. As is pointed out, Ratzinger's position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previously the Inquisition), meant that all abuse cases reported to the Vatican since 2001 crossed his desk. Unfortunately for the outgoing pope, he is portrayed here as doing little to intervene in the widespread criminality.

The film focuses, for the most part, on the stories of four men who were victims of a relentless predator, Father Lawrence Murphy, while boarding at St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tragically, the abuse suffered by these victims in the mid-1960s was but a small fraction of the crimes perpetrated by Murphy, who taught at the institution from 1950 until 1974.

Exhibiting the sort of class associated with his previous documentaries, including Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Gibney displays a sure hand in dissecting a hugely sensitive topic.

There is a terrible power in seeing the four central characters give their testimonies in sign language. Murphy, a signer, would use this barrier to isolate the boys from their loved ones until they became almost entirely reliant on him. The harrowing tales are narrated, with elegant understatement, by Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan and John Slattery.

The subsequent dithering by the diocesan authorities in Milwaukee was not an isolated event, of course, and Gibney goes to great lengths to underline the wider context.

From the Boston Archdiocese scandal in 2002 to the ongoing problems within the Irish Church, the focus of blame eventually ends up on Rome, where an organisation unused to change appears unwilling, and unable to address the increasingly loud calls for action.

As one contributor points out, however, such instances of sexual impropriety could not have been news to the Vatican, given the existence in its records of reports dating from the fourth century.

In their pursuit of closure, the Wisconsin victims remain unfulfilled. The film documents the wall of silence and secrecy with which they have been greeted. Nobody can fail to spot the irony of such silence being directed towards men whose world is already devoid of sound.

Lost innocence and startling indifference from the Church authorities represent the twin pillars at the heart of this documentary. 'I could see Jesus loved children and children loved Jesus,' says one of the Milwaukee men, of his early days at St John’s. Even the briefest of encounters with Murphy shattered that faith, and plunged each of his victims into a dark and confused place.

Hesitant and uncaring responses from the Vatican were compounded by rewards and patronage for those who perpetrated and concealed the crimes. One of the film’s forbidding title cards labels Ratzinger ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Yet, for all his shock and disapproval at the activities of certain priests, his concerns seem to have centred mainly on their failure to fulfill a divine calling, rather than a humane duty.

The use of archive footage from Ireland, in particular, hits home. The inadequate response to abuse in one Dublin parish is summed up, with tragic apathy, by former Primate of Ireland, Cardinal Desmond Connell, who dismisses his inaction with a weary 'but I’ve so much to do'.

For now, the Vatican seems resolved to throw money at the problem by way of financial settlements. That figure is currently projected to be $2 billion and counting. This film, however, hints that there is little hope of a root and branch overhaul existing anywhere on the horizon.

The speculation over the regime change at the head of the Holy See may be cranking up with each passing day, but until victims from Wisconsin to Dublin can be properly assured of justice, such changes may do little to stem the tide of a dwindling laity.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God runs from February 22 - 28 at Queen’s Film Theatre.