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Film takes sex abuse guilt to the Vatican

  • 21 March 2013

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (M). Director: Alex Gibney. 102 minutes

The sexual abuse of children by religious is by its nature an emotional, as well as profoundly ethical, moral, spiritual and criminal issue. Films and documentaries about this subject will therefore necessarily appeal to the emotions of the viewer. This can be to their detriment, if the emotional appeal is emphasized over factual detail.

The 2007 film Deliver Us From Evil fell into this trap; an emotionally harrowing film that leaned heavily on the extensive and graphic testimony of one offending (and only self-interestedly repentant) priest, while failing at times to substantiate some of its more outlandish claims. This is the kind of sensationalism that feeds prejudices and arguably does more to exploit victims than to help them.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God, by contrast, achieves a balance between its powerful emotional appeal and its integrity as a piece of investigative filmmaking.

It begins with a particular case study, that of Fr Lawrence Murphy, a key supporter and later head of a school for deaf boys in Milwaukee. Director Gibney interviews the now adult victims of Murphy, whose atrocities at the school during the late 1960s and 1970s included using the confessional as a kind of lair in which to abuse boys.

After charting in some detail the events at this school and the failure of local church authorities to protect the boys, Gibney broadens the scope to look at the wider American and international contexts, tracing the threads of complicity in neglect or outright cover-ups as far as the halls of the Vatican itself.

One reviewer at the screening I attended left the cinema declaring that the evidence was in: 'Ratzinger is to blame!' The reality, even as detailed here, is rather more complex than that, although the film does little to restore faith in the existing governance structures. Certainly the director's sympathies are firmly with the victims.

The now adult victims sign their stories 'loudly' and clearly (aided by voiceovers from seasoned screen actors) and relate their ongoing efforts to achieve justice. Four decades ago and inspired by the protests of the civil rights movement they even engaged in direct action, printing and distributing flyers that outed Murphy as an abuser. Ultimately their efforts fell on deaf ears. Towards the end of the film they sign 'deaf power'; the battle rages on.

Some of the expert interviewees