Although the five St. John's victims have been working for over three decades to call attention to the issue and seek justice for their suffering, their story gained traction after New York Times writer Laurie Goodstein wrote an article in 2010 about the Vatican's failure to defrock Murphy, despite the fact that they were presented with undeniable evidence of his crimes and received strong warnings from some American church officials. Murphy is believed to have molested over 200 boys at the boarding school from the 50s until 1974, when he was transferred to another parish. The Vatican was alerted of Murphy's behaviour in 1963 and did nothing. Actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, and John Slattery give voice to the victims, who use sign language with punctuated hand slaps to express the horrors they endured at the hand of Murphy and the shame that followed. Murphy's textbook predatory behaviour found him singling out what he perceived as the weaker students and further exploiting the fact that they faced an obvious barrier in communicating over the phone with their families. Three of the victims, including Terry Kohut, who sued the Catholic Church and named the current Pope in his lawsuit, were on hand for the world premiere TIFF screening I attended and gave their emotional reaction to it afterwards at the Q & A through a sign language interpreter. Just knowing that they were in the audience and reliving their pain while seeing the finished film for the first time added an extra significance and weight to the proceedings.
The investigations resulting from the Kohut lawsuit ended up leading to the discovery of secret Vatican documents that detailed many instances of sexual abuse cover-ups that reach to the highest levels of the Catholic Church, with Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) substantially implicated. In the years before being anointed Pope, Ratzinger oversaw a Vatican council that monitored sexual abuse cases in the Church, so his post-anointment claims of being unaware of most of what was occurring seem highly unlikely. How his and his predecessor's culpability and mishandling of these tragic cases hasn't been a much larger media story is difficult to understand.
That aside, overall media coverage of child and youth sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has, sadly, become an all-too-familiar story that one almost becomes numb to. Gibney rises to the challenge of presenting a fresh take on a much-discussed important subject with this well-researched and powerful film. My only real negative about it are the re-enactments that Gibney employs, even if they are artfully composed and beautifully shot, using plenty of religious imagery. Re-enactments are a staple of Gibney's work (not to mention Errol Morris'), but the stories he tells are usually compelling enough and, in my opinion, the end results are slightly diminished with this gimmicky device that feels like an imagination crutch for the audience.
Opens in the U.S. in November; TV premiere in early 2013 on HBO
Side note: While exiting a TIFF screening of Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out, I ran into Gibney (who had also just watched the documentary) and got a chance to shake his hand, tell him how much I enjoyed his work, and how forward I was looking to being at the Mea Maxima Culpa premiere the next afternoon. I refrained from mentioning my dislike of his use of the re-enactment segments.
Related post: my May 2010 review of Gibney's Casino Jack And The United States Of Money