Through the testimony of signing victims, Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa Silence In The House Of God lifts the lid on Church secrecy and child abuse.
The Vatican Cellars by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There are many Vatican conspiracy theories, but none are less fanciful or more damaging than Alex Gibney’s masterful Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God in its exposure of paedophilia in the Catholic Church. It begins in Milwaukee in 1972, in a school for deaf boys run by priests. At a time in history when contemporary attitudes considered the deaf as disabled, it was the Catholic Church who came to the rescue, opening the St John’s School for the Deaf with a signing priest and a bevy of boy-wrangling nuns. While directing the school however, Father John Murphy systematically abused more than 200 boys and Gibney’s film pieces together innocent-looking home movies of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
It’s Tony Walsh’s letter to Cardinal Angelo Solano in the Vatican that kickstarts Alex Gibney’s interrogation of the Catholic mindset, the economy of silence and the power play of child abuse. Forty years on, Tony recounts in sign language the plight of these wide-eyed innocents, taught to communicate by a signing priest – a second father they were reliant on in order to interact with a non-signing world. Singling out the most vulnerable, the boys with hearing parents who couldn’t sign, Father John Murphy would touch them, or masturbate in confession. He would prey on them while they slept, and when they were sent to him for being naughty he would abuse them, believing perhaps he was priest enough to take on their sins or purify his perversion into a holy act. For a long time, the mistreatment remained a secret. Entrenched in Catholic doctrine, the boys believed a priest should be obeyed. While those who dared confess to their parents were not believed or told to keep it a secret, a priest wouldn’t do that.
While the nuns also looked the other way, the priest continued, taking the chosen ones to a cabin in the Wisconsin woods. Nevertheless, despite their inability to hear or speak, a cry went out and one of the boys told his secret to a replacement priest in confession. Tragically, it came to nothing. Later, grown-up pupils and victims of abuse years earlier, made a statement to the (Irish Catholic) police. Again nothing. So angry were they at the impossibility of getting themselves heard, they left name-and-shame flyers outside the cathedral, sending all sins upwards to heaven. It’s not in the Catholic spirit to sue the Church, but following a lawsuit initiated by one of the victims, a meeting was finally held in 1974. The church’s representative however wasn’t there to hear their story or heal their wounds, but rather to “deny, minimise and blame”. Their relief at being listened to gave way to uneasy submission, let down by a statute of limitations that prohibited further civil action and persuaded to sign affidavits which prevented them from ever speaking of their abuse again.
The Catholic Church, it turns out, has at its disposal the Paraclete Order for the internal treatment of paedophile priests, far-flung parishes where priests live a life of prayer and penance far from the temptations of a community. It is however governed by a policy of secrecy, inscribed in Cardinal law since 1866. More than the wrongdoings of individual priests, it’s the systemic silence of the Vatican that sees Americans, the Irish and Italians boycotting Sunday mass and lobbying the Holy See. Since 2001, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, heading up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most modern incarnation of the Inquisition, has received every case of sex abuse levelled against a Catholic priest. And often above the law of the land, it has been left to the Church to deal with the child abusers within its ranks.
Rather than protect its congregation however, the Catholic Church has sought to clear, or rather pre-empt the besmirchment of its unholy name. With oaths of absolute secrecy made during clandestine meetings in exchange for pay-offs and threats of excommunication, priest, bishop and cardinal alike have followed orders from the Vatican in line with canon law, choosing to blame the media and victims rather than the sinner within its own holier-than-thou flock. But, Gibney’s argument goes, the paedophile is a criminal as much as a sinner, so how come so few priests have been defrocked, dismissed or criminally charged? In Ireland, with its now infamous cases of molestation shrouded in secrecy and conspiracy, the Vatican blamed the Irish bishops, a lack of humility and transparency that saw congregations leave in their droves, with even the Pope implicated in this greatest cover-up on earth.
Jaw-dropping in its revelations, Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God follows a similar progression to his masterful Taxi To The Dark Side, extrapolating from one case with one priest in one school in Wisconsin to a systemic cover-up within the Catholic Church reaching all the way to the top. The day of reckoning, when three of Father John Murphy’s victims confront him, makes for uncomfortable viewing if for no other reason than for its echo of the Church’s ordinance to belittle and deny. It’s a heart-breaking tragedy that the plaintive mute cries of the deaf victims go unheard, the “old priest” buried in his robes in a Catholic cemetery with impunity. Yet neither does Gibney’s powerful documentary pillory the Catholic Church, aligning itself rather with the abused eager to reclaim their faith and belief in the Holy Father. Often delaying the translations, Gibney lets the victims’ signing speak for itself, and it’s an extremely powerful, deafening cry for justice. The tragedy made even more desperate with the nagging fear that Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God will fall on deaf and mitred ears.
Mea Maxima Culpa is released on 15th February 2013 in the UK