Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God [film review]

After looking at the world of NHL pugilists in last year's outstanding The Last Gladiators (read my review here), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God finds director Alex Gibney returning to investigating abuses of power, a theme that has served him well in past efforts like Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side. This disturbing exposé on the problem of child and youth sexual abuse in the Catholic Church focusses partly on the stories of five deaf men who are thought to be the first individuals to ever publicly protest abuses by clergy in the United States, after they were victimized by Father Lawrence Murphy at St. John's School for the Deaf in the suburbs of Milwaukee during the 60s and 70s. Gibney also takes a broader view of the subject by looking at other cases of clergy abuse (notably in Ireland) and the systematic cover-ups of these crimes by the Catholic Church's top officials, whose unofficial policy on the matter is to "deny, minimize, and blame", according to one journalist interviewed. "Mea Maxima Culpa's" Latin translation is "my most grievous fault".

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.   

Rating: B

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


  1. Just another smeer job on religion from HBO and hateful Hollywood liberals.

    1. Since only a few audiences have even seen the film, I'm guessing you haven't yet. So where is the smear job? As I wrote, the film is based on facts, including official Vatican documents used in legal proceedings that PROVES there were cover-ups and that these supposedly infallible Popes just looked the other way while the lives of a lot of kids were destroyed. I was going to add that your comment might have a little more credibility if you could spell properly ("smeer"?), but it's just a plain ignorant comment, regardless of any misspelling.

  2. American religious nuts. *rolleyes*
    Good review, I look forward to it on HBO in a few months.

    1. Thanks. I don't know that he/she was a Yank...the second part of that sentence is probably correct, though.


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