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Film takes sex abuse guilt to the Vatican


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 provide fascinating historical context to the issues of Church governance and of the failure to expose offending priests to the criminal justice system. The film revisits the founding in the 1940s of the Servants of the Paraclete, an order that advocated spiritual rehabilitation for offending priests. To its credit the order envisioned that such priests were to be permanently removed from circulation; that didn't always occur.

The human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson makes an interesting albeit extreme case for the Vatican to be stripped of its statehood — something it achieved in the 20th century thanks to a deal struck with Mussolini while Italy was under totalitarian rule — in order to expose corrupt leaders to external legal processes.

Another expert muses on one of the fundamentals in the formation of Catholics, suggesting that first communion occurs at too young an age. This, he argues, indoctrinates very young children into the sense of the priest as a figure of awe, which in turn might contribute to their pliability if a priest turns abuser. There is evidence in the film to suggest the deaf boys were enamoured of Murphy in a way that made them vulnerable to his advances.

This is all interesting and relevant stuff that speaks to Gibney's capabilities as an investigative filmmaker.

The film arrives in Australia a year after its American release. There is a sense that it has missed the boat, given that our own state inquiries and Royal Commission into the abuse of children in institutions have gathered steam in the interim. Given, too, that the election of Pope Francis, whose sense of solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and agenda for the reform of Church governance, have raised the hopes of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In the local context, the film at least serves as a warning of what revelations may be to come. In the context of the international Church, it is a sobering reminder of how much work remains to be done.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, clergy sex abuse, Pope Francis, Ratzinger



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Existing comments

I watched "Deliver Us From Evil" some time ago on SBS-TV and it was disturbing viewing. Towards the end of the film, an interview with the offending priest highlighted his lack of recognition of the very serious nature of his crimes, and contrasted with the outrage and hurt of victims. Much work does remain to be done on this issue. The election of Pope Francis is a heartening sign for the future.

Pam | 20 March 2013  

Mr.K. Some good points, but as you note the documentary was released a year ago in the USA. Perhaps if it had been simultaneously released in Australia, the VIC, NSW, and Royal Commission investigations would be a year further along. Why was such an eye opening look at the culpability of the Church and Ratzinger/Benedict kept from the Australian public? More Church obstructionism? Less ept investigative journalists and documentarians in Australia? Surly not. BTW, it appears that QC Robertson is also off the ball. SNAP filed charges of crimes against humanity against Ratzinger/Benedict in The Hague September 13, 2011.

Steven Spaner | 21 March 2013  

Sadly, I think this sort of thing happens all too often with people in a similar position to Father Murphy. Not just clerics but school teachers et sim. One of the things which horrifies me is that at Downside Abbey in the UK, which has one of the most famous Catholic schools in England attached to it, there has been at least one successful prosecution of a predator monk who taught there http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/09/richard-white-paedophile-downside-school-monks-lose-control_n_1193981.html This sort of occurrence at various Benedictine schools in England has led to the question whether monks should have ultimate control over the schools they started (often for recusant Catholics abroad) http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/09/richard-white-paedophile-downside-school-monks-lose-control_n_1193981.html The old authoritarian model and the implicit trust in clergy no longer exist.

Edward F | 21 March 2013  

Should we put into the Ethics folder?

CATHERINE | 21 March 2013  

Oops! My second reference is http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/willheaven/100131428/downside-can-emerge-renewed-from-this-sex-abuse-scandal-if-the-monks-choose-the-right-reforms/

Edward F | 21 March 2013  

Prominent US lawyer Alan Dershowitz defends Pope Benedict (excerpts from Lateline interview 30.9.2010) Alan Dershowtiz: “Yes. I think Pope Benedict has probably done more to protect young children since becoming Pope than any previous Pope…" “[But] I'm very concerned that Geoffrey Robertson, who's a great lawyer, is … insensitive to the rights of priests and others FALSELY accused - and there have been many such cases as well. There has to be a balance struck ..." … “the secret of liberty: keeping Church and State separate. And I'm worried that Geoffrey Robertson would merge the two together“. “… largely it was the fault of law enforcement. Law enforcement had NO barriers to going in and aggressively prosecuting these crimes. And many prosecutors just refused to do it [for lack of evidence and because of so many accusations which proved to be vexatious or clearly for the purposes of extortion] …”but you don't blame the Church when law enforcement fails to prosecute“. Tony Jones: “Now, Robertson's contention is that he protected abusers through the Church's Canon Law and that he ignored the victims”. “… What about the "Canon Law" though, because you've written in defence of the Canon Law. You've said for example it provides for scrupulous methods of proof and you talk about a long tradition of internal due process”. [and Here Robertson is wrong: Canon Law can ONLY apply AFTER a court has prosecuted the perpetrator]. …/2

mark | 22 March 2013  

…/2 Tony Jones: “Is that because we don't have the evidence or because you believe the evidence is not there, or because you just believe he's completely innocent of any wrongdoing at all? “ Alan Dershowitz: “The evidence that I've seen - I've seen letters, I've seen correspondence, shows to me that the evidence is NOT there. I would not have any objections to opening up files …. I think transparency is essential. …And the Pope HAS said this: truth is its own virtue. The truth SHOULD come out. “… And I think today, being a young Catholic altar boy is a very safe place to be - not in the 1970s and '80s, but today the Church HAS taken real responsibility and is looking forward“. However, there seems to be a proliferation of films portraying priests as paedophiles but so often based more in caricature than reality, with many accusations allowed to stand without anywhere near sufficient substantiation and details sketchy at best, suggesting that the filmmakers are more interested in emotional responses than in 'cold hard facts'. The film-makers could then equally be viewed as child-abusers because this kind of largely unsubstantiated sensationalism feeds prejudices and arguably does more to exploit victims than to help them.

mark | 22 March 2013  

Thank you Tim for bringing this film and its contents further into the public eye. I saw the film last night. There were nine of us in the large theatre. It reminded me of the churches, and how the buildings and institutional religion can give us little but emptiness. Until the institution can put people above itself, the structures will hold little or nothing of lasting value. Only God can fill us with delight and hope.

Marlene Marburg | 22 March 2013  

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