Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is the new documentary from Alex Gibney, the prolific filmmaker behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side. Mea Maxima Culpa looks at paedophilia in the Catholic Church and the Church’s ineffectual response to it. Though it is full of powerful victim’s testimonies, Gibney’s documentary is a somewhat awkward retelling of the story.
The documentary begins in Wisconsin, at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in which a series of young boys fall prey to serial sex offender Father Lawrence Murphy, the school’s director. Murphy was not deaf and could sign and he was able to get away with his crimes because his victim’s couldn’t easily communicate their suffering to their parents. As some of the victims got older, they began to try to alert the public about Father Murphy and found that the Catholic Church would either ignore their stories or would actively cover up the crimes. The documentary then moves into Ireland and Italy and examines how the scandal finally broke and what the Catholic Church, including popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, did or, more accurately, didn’t do about it.
One of the worst aspects of the paedophile priest scandal, apart from the crimes themselves, has been the Catholic Church’s refusal to show any sympathy or repentance towards the victims. One of the most damning scenes in the documentary comes from an interview with the then Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell. When asked why he never reached out to the victim’s of paedophile priest Father Tony Walsh, he falters, pausing, tries to come up with a valid explanation and then says feebly, “I suppose I should have done, but I’ve so much to do.” This footage got the biggest laugh during the screening of the film, but it is also one of the few cases in which the film allows the Catholic establishment to damn itself by its own words. It is also stock footage that did not come from Gibney himself. In fact, there is very little in Mea Maxima Culpa that is original or new. This is ultimately the problem with the film and its attempts to overcome this are rather questionable.
Mea Maxima Culpa is a retelling of the scandal designed for a cinema release and an audience. It certainly isn’t entertainment but it isn’t really reporting either. A lot of the early sequences involving Father Murphy feature reconstructions and horror movie visuals. There is one moment in which Gibney and his editor Sloane Klevin select a piece of Super 8 footage of Murphy, in which he is shaking hands of a group of people. They play it, slow it down at a choice moment and layer in sinister music. From the angle of the camera, it looks oddly like Murphy is sucking the neck of a victim, drawing a suggestion of Murphy’s vampirism that links quite well with reconstruction footage of him prowling through the boys’ bedrooms. Another moment shows a reconstruction in which Murphy invites a boy into his office and shuts the door, his silhouette through the door suggesting a monster. Gibney and many of his interviewees rightly call for more compassion from the Catholic Church and yet it is difficult to see how these victims would take such over-the-top and manipulative scenes features monstrous Murphy look-a-likes and crafty edits. As if the words of the victims were not horrible enough, Gibney feels the need to couple them with horror movie hyperbole, surely from consideration of the audience and the box office more than consideration of his interviewees. Similarly, the choice to have the well-known voices of John Slattery and Chris Cooper talk over the interviewees’ sign language feels a touch insensitive. Why Gibney felt the need to dress his film up with all this artifice when the truth was damning enough is difficult to work out but it does highlight Mea Maxima Culpa’s deficiencies as a documentary.
Mea Maxima Culpa is an angry, hard-hitting documentary that rightly criticises the silence of the Catholic Church, but it is also hopelessly damaged by this very silence. As the film states, no one at the Vatican agreed to be interviewed for the film and there is a large whole in the film in which a revelation or two should have been. Sadly, for all the evident research and the heartfelt if badly presented representations of the victim’s stories, Mea Maxima Culpa cannot add anything to the debate. By the end of the film, the inner working of the Vatican are suspicious but still essentially unknowable.
Where Mea Maxima Culpa does succeed is as a call for a more modern and more human Catholic Church. The film suggests that the lack of convictions boils down to the disbelief of the people, particularly before the scandal broke, that a priest could commit such crimes. Were the Catholic Church to accept a responsibility for it’s failings and show penitence to its victims as well as to allow criminal activities in the clergy to be a civil matter, it would do a lot towards dealing with the wrongs that some of the clergy have committed. By setting itself apart from its congregation, the Catholic Church have damaged the trust that ordinary Catholics would have in their Church.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is more convincing when dealing with the cover-ups that the Catholic Church was involved in. Troublingly, it seems to consider its audience and potential box office more than the people whose stories it is representing. The film’s demonization of paedophiles feels unhelpful when surely what needs consideration is what’s to be done with an institution that harbours them and how to help reduce the pain of the victims. Similarly, the film’s drawing of links to the Inquisition and Fascism are barely relevant and seem designed merely to shock, making the film seem like a general hatchet job than a reasoned examination of the paedophile priest scandal and the bravery of the victims in speaking out. Nonetheless, it is a valuable call for the Catholic Church to accept some responsibility for the crimes committed.