Sexual abuse of a child is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. When that act is committed in the supposedly “safe” environment of a school or a church, and by an authority to whom the safety of the child has been entrusted, it becomes an even greater betrayal of the trust that should exist between adults and children. Further, when acts are committed upon children who are not only vulnerable to exploitation because of their age but also because they have a physical impairment, then those acts become truly enraging and saddening. Such acts are the subject of Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s (Taxi to the Dark Side) great new documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.
Mea Maxima Culpa is a look at the first known public protest against clerical sex abuse in the United States, focusing on the crimes of Father Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest who abused more than 200 deaf children in a school under his control. Murphy picked many of his victims because they were the children of parents who couldn’t “sign,” and therefore it would be even harder for the boys to tell their parents about any problems — beyond the issue of getting anyone to believe that a priest would do such things, anyway.
The documentary shows how the eventual outcry led to a case that spanned three decades and resulted in a lawsuit against the pope himself. Truly fascinating in Mea Maxima Culpa is an investigation that helped uncover documents from secret Vatican archives that show the pope, who must operate within the mysterious rules of the Roman Curia, as both responsible and helpless in the face of evil (other cases besides Murphy’s are chronicled in the film as well). The film shows how the current pope, Benedict XVI, in his earlier role as a cardinal, had been in charge of enforcing the confidentiality of internal church investigations into acts such as sex abuse and implies that he may know the extent to which it reaches.
Beyond the shocking facts of the film, its presentation is mesmerizing. I had the privilege of seeing the U.S. premiere of Mea Maxima Culpa in Milwaukee, with the director in attendance, and with several of the film’s subjects also there (as well as several in the audience who had also attended the school where Murphy’s crimes took place). It was an emotional experience, but you don’t need to be in attendance with these people to be emotionally moved and inspired by their stories as they are portrayed in this film. Gibney lets the victims, now adults, tell their stories in sign language, with captioning. Noted actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke also provide their voices to speak the victims’ words as they are signing, offering a voice they never had, but ultimately the viewer doesn’t find that sound necessary. Watching the victims sign — the pounding of their fists, the tears, the almost helpless opening and closing of their voiceless mouths — is really all you need to immediately pick up their sense of anger, shame, occasional humor and relief at finally telling their tales. It’s ironic that through their silent communication, they speak more loudly than the church has up to this point about these acts.
I was disappointed that although Mea Maxima Culpa made the Oscar short list for Best Feature Documentary, it ultimately was not nominated. Nonetheless, it’s an important documentary, artfully and movingly presented, about a subject that needs to have more noise made about it.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God premieres on HBO Feb. 4 at 9pm ET/PT.