Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a 2012 documentary written and directed by Alex Gibney, who “explores the charged issue of pedophilia in the Catholic Church, following a trail from the first known protest against clerical sexual abuse in the United States and all the way to the Vatican.” In limited release now, HBO apparently plans to air it early this year.
“Mea Maxima Culpa”: Latin for “My most grievous fault”
“Silence in the House of God”: has multiple meanings. Nora Lee Mandel, FilmForward, explains:
There’s the familiar stonewalling silence of pedophile priests, cover-ups by the Catholic Church, and promotions for its collusive hierarchy. But more powerfully, he lets us hear through the silence of victims at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, who were continually abused there from the 1950s and 1960s on. They passionately sign about their years of anguish and about how their pleas weren’t heeded as the abuses kept going on, adding poignancy to what they realized as children–that Father Lawrence Murphy picked out children to sexually abuse whose parents didn’t know sign language so the boys couldn’t complain to them.
Victims of Father Murphy who are interviewed are given a voice by such actors as John Slattery, Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, and Ethan Hawke. States A. O. Scott, New York Times:
…(T)he heart of “Mea Maxima Culpa” — the real source of its emotional impact — lies in a remarkable series of interviews with some of the men, most now in their 60s, who endured Father Murphy’s assaults when they were children and who have worked for almost 40 years to bring his crimes to light…
That Father Murphy’s victims were deaf gave their abuser an extra layer of protection. Some of the boys could not communicate very well with their hearing families, and Father Murphy operated in the literal certainty of their silence. These students were especially vulnerable, less because of their physical difference than because of the social marginalization that accompanied it. Their specific demand for justice as they grew older was thus also part of a larger insistence on recognition and the acquisition of a public voice.
The Perpetrators’ “Noble-Cause Corruption”
Justin Chang, Variety, reports: “Richard Sipe, a mental-health counselor and former Benedictine monk, illuminates the twisted nature of ‘noble-cause corruption,’ explaining how a priest could convince himself that his acts of abuse were in fact acts of consecration, supposedly cleansing his victims of their adolescent lusts by stimulating them sexually.”
The Mostly Misguided and Outrageous Response By Church Powers
Many of the reviews address the film’s emphasis not only on the perpetrators within the Church—from the accused priests to the poor response at the top of the hierarchy (up to Pope Benedict)—but also on those within the institution who at least tried to do the right thing. Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:
One of the most intriguing tangents in ‘Mea Maxima Culpa’ involves the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, a Catholic congregation established to help priests who were struggling with celibacy, alcoholism and other personal issues. A recently released trove of Fitzgerald’s letters reveals that as early as 1952 he had warned church leaders, including two popes, that there was a nationwide problem with abusive priests, and stressed that he believed priests who committed such crimes could not be cured and returned to their pastoral duties. Fitzgerald favored defrocking them or isolating them in monasteries, rather than turning them over to the authorities.
Arguably, though not ideal, that would have been preferable to what actually happened. As described by John DeFore, Hollywood Reporter: “The church’s policy became to ‘treat’ priests known to have committed abuse, then circulate them elsewhere in the church, all without acknowledging their crimes to law enforcement.” Hence perpetuating the abuse.