It’s a good thing that documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is an ex-Catholic; it takes the rage of the disillusioned to so zealously rip the veil as he does in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Yet even nonbelievers will get angry deciding which is worse: the sexual abuse of deaf children (mostly, though not exclusively, boys) at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from the 1950s through the early ’70s or that the church worked so hard to hide it.
Putting a face on misery, as he did in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney begins with four of the 200 boys abused by Father Lawrence Murphy—Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn, and Arthur Budzinski—all as brave today for being filmed as they were when they first tried to out Murphy in 1973, handing out flyers proclaiming “Serial Child Abuser Is Loose in Milwaukee” and turning him in to the police to no avail. (The men’s stories are given voice by actors including Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, and John Slattery.) Kohut describes Murphy as wolflike; in one of the movie’s re-enactments, we watch his nightly visitations stalking the dorm, looking especially for boys whose parents didn’t sign and couldn’t be told.
Although Murphy admitted to some wrongdoing in a church-supervised internal investigation, defending himself by saying he was taking the sexual sins of adolescents upon himself, he was like so many abusive priests simply moved to another diocese. The film also exposes secret million-dollar settlement funds, and even an attempt to buy an island in the Caribbean for pederastic priests. Cute, but instead they too were recycled, not expelled. A rat-a-tat spray of documents and expert testimony from sex counselors, priests with and without collars, and journalists including religion reporter Laurie Goodstein demonstrates who knew what and when they knew it. Vatican chronicler Marco Politi asserts that church archives date child abuse to the fourth century.
Gibney climbs the ladder of blame right to the top, arguing that the Pope—the priest formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger—had knowledge of all sex-abuse cases. Mea Maxima Culpa (translation: “my most grievous fault”) reminds us that Mussolini empowered the Vatican by making it a country, that canon law has ways around prosecution, and that the priesthood is considered at least partly divine. The film is one-sided, of course—church officials ignored interview requests, but their version has been around for a couple of millennia anyway.
Despite its message, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God has witty moments. Footage of a corrupt priest, Father Maciel, is set to “The Devil in Disguise.” A seriocomic sequence features Ireland’s popular “Singing Priest,” Tony Walsh, also a molester.
Silence might be the most perfect expression of scorn, as the saying goes, but like Edvard Munch’s The Scream, you don’t have to hear it to get the horror.