Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Church’

With Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, we enter the somewhat strange terrain of the documentary which appears on TV in the States but earns a cinematic release in the UK (the same thing happened last year with Woody Allen: A Documentary). This is, I think, an important film, and a well-made one; it’s a film you should probably see. But it’s not a pleasant film, an easy one to watch, or a remotely entertaining one. (It’s hardly ideal material for a semi-humorous film review blog, but c’est la vie – or, given we seem to be operating in Latin today, haec est vita.)


Forming the narrative core of Gibney’s film are the stories of four deaf men who all attended the same school in the nineteen-sixties. The film opens with them recalling the depths of their dedication to the Catholic faith they all shared (they are given voice by Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, and others). Their devotion was soon horribly tested when they became the victims of the priest in charge of the school, Lawrence Murphy, who was a predatory paedophile. The film follows their attempts to raise the alarm concerning Murphy’s crimes and receive some kind of justice from the authorities of either the church or the state.

Interwoven with this story are a series of other testimonies which step back and take a look at the wider issues it raises – the whole attitude of the Catholic church and the Vatican towards the problem of sexual offences carried out by its priests. There is one contributor who made an academic study of the degree to which priests adhered to their vow of chastity, another whose job was as a ‘fixer’, going into parishes following the removal of an offending priest, and so on.

The film is appropriately unsensational in its approach and assembly; it is sober and responsible in its tone. But while some of the revelations of its participants are predictably appalling, some of them are shocking, and some of them are genuinely astonishing – such as the suggestion that at any given time, only 50% of Catholic priests are genuinely celibate. Evidence of child abuse going back over 1500 years is equally shocking, while news of the Vatican’s plan to buy its own private island where it could sequester offending priests is simply startling. But perhaps the biggest revelation made by the film is that the Vatican’s response to child abuse by its priests was for many years centralised into one office, personally overseen by one man – who, therefore, must be the most knowledgable person in the world about this topic and the associated cover-ups. However, the German gentleman in question is now quite elderly, and has very recently retired from a high-profile job in Rome, so he does not contribute directly to the movie.

That there was, for many years, a cover-up by the Vatican does not seem to be in any real doubt. One gets an almost overwhelming sense that the Church’s main priority was not the wellbeing of the child victims in these cases, but its own reputation and authority: institutional arrogance on a massive scale, and one perpetuated by the Vatican’s anomalous status as an autonomous diplomatic body, with the Pope exempt from the laws of other nations. Many contributors to this film, lawyers and journalists amongst them, are clearly angry about this last thing in particular – not that most of the subject matter of this film isn’t enough to move a rational person to a cold rage.

I found the wider picture presented by the film to be rather more interesting than the details of the Lawrence Murphy case – after all, the film is about a massive, long-standing, international cover-up rather than a particular instance of a priest being an abuser. And I was worried to begin with that the choice of the deaf men as the central contributors might be motivated by a desire to pitch for the audience’s sympathy, even when such a pitch obviously isn’t necessary. But I don’t think this was the reasoning involved – the story of the participants and their struggle to be heard is notable enough on its own terms.

Mea Maxima Culpa doesn’t seriously attempt to present both sides of the story – its presentation of the institution of the Catholic Church and of the Vatican is framed almost wholly in terms of deceit, corruption, and arrogant self-interest. I am sure there are good people in both bodies, and positive things arising from their work – but the question the film leaves unasked is whether that can truly excuse not just the crimes of the guilty, but the attempts by others to shield those guilty parties. The idea of child abuse within the Catholic Church has become almost a given, a sick running gag in modern society. Mea Maxima Culpa, if nothing else, should make us think about it seriously again, and question the kind of culture we permit to exist in our great institutions.

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