In a frank and eye-opening documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God unveils the little known details of the Catholic Church’s unacceptable behavior in the wake of a series of public sex abuse cases. Telling the story of four extraordinary men and their struggle for justice, this account is as difficult as it is necessary.
The film begins with a strong focus on the stories of four former students of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the first case of protest against molestation at the hands of the clergy in the United States, these four deaf men recount what they remember from their time as victims of the senior priest of the school, Father Lawrence Murphy. Whilst voiceovers are used to translate what is said, the men can still be heard through their gestures and exclamations of emotion. Through their testimonies, it is revealed that Father Murphy repeatedly molested not just these few, but hundreds of boys at the school during his tenure.
Beginning with their arrival at the school, the men express the joy and hope they first experienced upon seeing the hallowed walls of the chapel school. By expressing the safety and happiness that they believed the school represented, the heinous activities of Father Murphy are made all the worse, as a series of reconstructions are shown to visualise the traumatic experiences that these young boys experienced. We see Murphy stalking the dormitories of the school, selecting his victims, as well as the confessional stalls in which the most disturbing crimes occurred. The horror of each man’s story is enough to perhaps not warrant these reconstructions, as the artifice of such scenes are hardly needed when faced with the harsh truth of what occurred. What is truly effective are the snippets of home video that record Murphy’s smiling face, and the fear of the students around him, which make for a far more distressing means of delivery.
The film moves on to cover how the men attempted to uncover Murphy’s reign of terror, and it is at this point that it becomes truly disturbing, as Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney methodically lays out the evidence for the Catholic Church’s guilt in failing to deal with the issue, despite having knowledge of it. Through damning testimonies from church therapists to a man employed by the church to cover up known acts of molestation, Gibney provides a wealth of evidence from those within the Church as well as those outside to support his argument.
As the film delves into canon law and Church policy, the activities of the Servants of the Paraclete come to light as a group dedicated to the reform and recirculation of peadophiles within Catholicism, as well as The Vatican’s failed attempt to purchase a Caribbean island for the same purpose. As each scrap of information joins up, it becomes clear that The Vatican sees itself above the laws of men and can therefore act outside society and ‘take care’ of issues such as these.
As worldwide scandal breaks and similar cases are found all over the world, Mea Maxima Culpa turns its attention to those directly to blame, namely the upper positions of The Vatican itself. Taking a particular look at Cardinal Ratzinger (who is now the current Pope) and his leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, evidence is produced to prove that The Vatican would have been notified of every single case of child abuse by the clergy from around the world. This eye-opening account of the Church’s policy of Omerta (meaning silence) and the institutional lack of accountability is shocking, and serves to make you wonder just why this is still not such a contested issue.
Taking on a difficult subject but with great skill and compassion, Gibney provides a confident, measured, and well-constructed argument in Mea Maxima Cupla. As difficult as some moments of the documentary are, you can never be in doubt of the importance of the story he is portraying; one of betrayal, crime and true horror. As each layer of conspiracy is peeled back, the film becomes all the more gripping, and provides clear, no-nonsense insight into this hotly contested issue. The use of beautiful imagery associated with Rome and The Vatican makes for a sickly and uncomfortable reaction to what is unfolding, providing an all the more effective sense of threat and corruption. This is not a film to be enjoyed, but instead one that still deserves to be seen more than most. Unsurprisingly, the final title of the film states that The Vatican refused to comment or take part in the film’s production, a fact that only leads one to think, what else is not being said?