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Non-Review Review: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

It’s very hard to know how to react to the seemingly bottomless pit of sex abuse allocations that have surfaced against the Catholic Church over the past couple of decades. Mea Maxima Culpa reveals that not only does the institutional abuse reach far into the past of the religious organisation, but that the Vatican was aware of these betrayals and violations of trusts for forty years. Mea Maxima Culpa is brutally candid in the way that it exposes the steps that the Catholic Church took to insulate and protect itself from these allegations and insinuations, even pointing out that most modern concessions and apologies are more concerned about the violation of the sanctity of the priesthood than with the damage done to the victims.

Mea Maxima Culpa is rough and overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to fault the documentary for this candid approach to the most uncomfortable subject matter. It’s well-constructed, thoughtful and also quite affecting – a powerful piece of documentary cinema that really exposes the true extent of a problem that has only been acknowledged in the past decade or so.

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Of course, we all know about the allegations and the abuse. We know that certain priests abused their duties of care toward young children, exploiting and victimising them. Mea Maxima Culpa starts with one especially notable example, the abuse at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Boston. It dwells on the sickening practices of Father Murphy, who institutionalised his abuse. He would take boys on trips and make them elect a member of the group to sleep with him, he would tour colleges with them, he would sneak into the dormitory at night. He even, it is explained, created a system of abuse where the older boys would victimise the younger.

The film spends about a half-an-hour exploring Murphy’s abuse in great detail, refusing to spare any brutality or conceal any depravity. It’s hard to watch, as it should be. The film occasionally veers a little bit too heavily into sensationalism, as his victims describe him as “a wolf” while slow-motion footage recreates the priest stalking the dormitory like the villain from a low-rent slasher. However, the documentary is mostly relatively tasteful, focusing on allowing the victims to tell their story. The victims are deaf, and communicate through sign language, so the film dubs familiar voices over their narration.

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While the opening section is tough, the most compelling and just-as-disturbing stuff is contained after we’ve broadened out from the case study. As we piece together the bigger picture from the story at St. John’s, we see an institution that knew what was going on. Father Murphy’s briefly-mentioned absence turned out to be a trip to Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, sort of an Catholic Church internal affairs. His replacement, Father Walsh, had apparently raised concerns about him before.

And this is where the film really hammers home the institutionalised apathy and indifference towards these offences. For example, we learnt that – at one point – the Church apparently considered buying an island to house their sex abusers. We discover that the Vatican sent representatives to meetings concerning Murphy’s abuse in the seventies. We even find out that those priests charged with investigating the accusations were instructed to settle up to $250,000, in return for a confidentiality agreement.

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Perhaps most telling is the revelation that one interview spend so much time trying to convince his superiors that this abuse was “not a sin, but a crime.” In the end, decades after he abused countless young victims, the Vatican couldn’t pursue Father Murphy as the statute of limitations had expired. Ultimately, they tried to move forward with a charge relating to abuse of a confessional. It’s very informative that abuse of confessional is a sin that – in the eyes of the Church – lasts far longer than the rape of many young boys.

Mea Maxima Culpa zeroes in on a number of potential roots of this attitude, each explored with considerable nuance. There is, most obviously, a variation of “noble cause corruption” – the notion that the belief that a priest can do no wrong not only allows a community to hide the depths of abuse from itself, but also for abusers to justify their own actions. The documentary rather cleverly hits on the language of the Church’s recent apologies and concessions – there’s a clear sense that the Church is more offended that priests could do this than with the damage that has been done.

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The documentary also skirts around the issue of money and fundraising. It doesn’t directly level the accusation, but it presents enough information to support the argument. Murphy was apparently the best fundraiser in the parish, and it’s implied that his ability to bring in so much money protected him. The documentary also suggests that one of the Vatican’s most high-level abusers had been protected because of the earning potential that he had.

All of the allegations and observations are well-researched and reasonably well handled. The documentary clearly (and deservedly) condemns the institutionalised corruption and wilful ignorance that allowed this problem to fester. And yet, despite that, it doesn’t play to easy answers. You could make a convincing argument, for example, that the movie’s portrayal of Cardinal Ratzinger (and Pope Benedict XVI) is somewhat kinder than it’s look at Pope John Paul II.

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Neither man comes out looking especially decent, but one interviewee tries to make an argument that Ratzinger was effectively trapped by his office, and that his pain and his sympathy for the victims was genuine, even if he lacked the will to follow through. Of course, this is about as friendly as the commentators get, there’s also those campaigning to abolish the Vatican as a state. And there is a great deal of sympathy for those inside the hierarchy who tried to fix things.

Indeed, Father Thomas Doyle makes a sincere and genuine defense of the idea that the Catholic Church is really comprised of the members of the congregation, and that the lawsuits against the Church represent an attempt to try to claim some of that back – democracy in action, so to speak. That said, the documentary occasionally feels a bit weighted, broadening its attack from the way the Catholic Church has mishandled this crisis to a broader argument over whether the Vatican should exist at all.

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For example, I do wonder why a talking head was recruited from countmeout.ie to comment on Ireland’s religious make-up – particularly when the insight is a bit trite. I’m not sure exactly how the “…it’s like a blood type…” metaphor works, as nice a soundbyte as it makes. Yes, everybody has a blood-type, but it’s not as if we differentiate between practising and lapsed type-A donors.

There is also a little bit of the story missing. We never quite discover exactly when or how the media started taking these accusations seriously. We’re shown that the editors and the officials conspired to protect the church, even removing details of accusations made about abusers being cycled out of the area (and into another unfortunate and unaware location). While the decision of some of the victims to come forward is cited, along with various bold and brave statements made, the documentary seems to miss a step between handing out fliers and finally earning the attention they deserved.

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Still, it’s a minor complaint. Mea Maxima Culpa is a powerful exploration of a dark chapter in the history of an institution that has lacked any real sense of moral decency or courage in coming to terms with its sins. It’s thoughtful and sharp – it raises the point that these patterns tend to repeat. Italian victims from a deaf school were amazed to hear of a shockingly similar case in the United States. With the Catholic Church growing in the developing world, it’s hard not to worry.

Mea Maxima Culpa is bold, uncomfortable and insightful. It is perhaps the most comprehensive and challenging documentary produced on this crisis to date, and it is well worth a look.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. Dear Darren, thank you for your thorough review. I watched this last night on HBO and am still reeling in its wake. I live in the state of Wisconsin, USA – in a city not too far from the location of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. That this happened to such innocents very nearby and nothing was done in their defense is an intense weight on the mind and heart. The mind tries not to comprehend the scope of these crimes and the complicity of those in authority who chose not to save the children in deference to saving an image. And now that image is forever tarnished. The web of their deception has choked off any potential brilliance.

    • It is a very powerful, a very stunning documentary. It is hard to really come to terms with all that happened, and all that was allowed to happen.

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