Sins of the fathers: Alex Gibney shines light on Church scandals in 'Mea Maxima Culpa'

The details of the crime were appalling. For years, the students of St. John's School for the Deaf outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were systematically abused by the very person put in charge to protect them, Father Lawrence Murphy. The students appealed to teachers and eventually to the police for help, only to be turned away. As Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney shows in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, this pattern of indifference and culpability leads from Milwaukee to the Vatican, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church.

Raised a Catholic, Gibney reacted strongly to the issue of sexual abuse within the Church. "But a lot of people had done films about isolated tales of clerical abuse," he says during an interview from HBO offices in New York. "I wanted to make sure that if I was going to do it, I could make a new contribution."

Articles by New York Times national religion correspondent Laurie Goodstein about how deaf survivors took their story to the public brought national attention to the St. John's incident. Gibney was drawn to the story because it linked Church abuse for the first time to the Vatican, giving him a canvas that was both intimate and panoramic. "This was a story about everyday heroes," he adds. "Deaf survivors who had no voices, but still managed to make themselves be heard."

In the film, Gibney builds the case against the Vatican gradually, first working backwards to explain the conditions at St. John's. "We didn't want to make a dogmatic film," he explains. "We wanted to fan out from this case to something much bigger. Much as these survivors, who were just local kids from Milwaukee, suddenly got religion, so to speak, and started to try to raise their voices until they took their story all the way to the top. But honestly, the movie comes out of silence, and you have to learn to inhabit that world first, let it open up to you."

At the heart of Mea Maxima Culpa is the searing testimony of several deaf survivors who describe what happened to them in unsettling terms. Gibney and his crew tested different interview techniques, settling on a four-camera set-up with teleprompters and simultaneous translators to approximate a conversation. Each survivor was filmed for about two hours.

As he did in his previous films, Gibney stages recreations of scenes for Mea Maxima Culpa. He also employs voice actors for the deaf survivors.

'We had a lot of discussion as to whether or not we should subtitle them instead of using voiceover," he admits. The filmmakers decided voiceovers would let viewers focus on the survivors' faces and hands rather than reading subtitles. On a more practical level, "We're not always on camera with them," Gibney explains. Voiceovers let the director cut to other locations, and introduce other testimony, without adding layers of complexity.

Technique wouldn't matter if the material in Mea Maxima Culpa weren't so powerful. As framed by Gibney, testimony from survivors like Terry Kohut, Gary Smith and Arthur Budzinski is so direct and forceful that it strips away the euphemisms and half-truths the Church has employed to distance itself from the problem.

Archival footage helps viewers get a sense of the trust and innocence betrayed at St. John's. One crucial video shot by Bob Bolger, who has since died, showed survivors confronting an unrepentant Father Murphy years later. "Murphy basically says, 'Look, all this stuff happened a long time ago, let's move on,'" a visibly angry Gibney exclaims.

A short clip from the piece had appeared on a local television show, but Gibney and his staff managed to procure the entire Bolger video. Other archival footage was hard to pin down. "You just have to have faith that you are going to find stuff," Gibney admits. "Terry Kohut had shot all this Super 8 footage of St. John's, but it was in boxes in his country place, and he wasn't going to go there for months. It wound up being stunning stuff. You see Father Murphy dispensing Communion, and the altar boy who's assisting him is Terry."

The director believes that the best archival material emerges as a result of "shoe leather," of following up clues, pursuing connections, asking family members for photographs. "When we were editing, the hardest thing, frankly, was to mix the panoramic with the intimate, mix the Vatican with St. John's," Gibney says. "It took a long time for us to get that right, and it really wasn't until we found a similar story about abuse in a deaf school in Verona, Italy, that we could tie them together."

Representatives at the Vatican refused Gibney's requests for interviews. The Church has also refused to open its secret archives of sex-abuse cases. So Gibney felt more pressure to build an unassailable case that the Church not only knew about the abuse at St. John's, but decided not to help.

Mea Maxima Culpa (a Latin phrase meaning "through my most grievous fault" used in a prayer to confess sins) does this by examining the steps the Church did take in this and similar cases. The accused priests were offered counseling and therapy; some went on retreats conducted by the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order devoted to priests with personal problems. The abuse survivors, on the other hand, were offered minimal settlements. Some, like Gary Smith, were tricked into signing away their legal rights.

The one interview Gibney regrets not obtaining was with New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Brought in to clean up the mess in Milwaukee, Dolan transferred $55 million in archdiocese assets to a cemetery fund—money the church might have had to pay if it lost legal battles. "A brutal act," is how Gibney puts it. "Dolan gave Murphy's grave more consideration than the survivors of Murphy's abuse."

Dolan did appear on a "60 Minutes" segment excerpted in Mea Maxima Culpa. But to Gibney, that sort of interview is little more than a press release. "Journalists are going to do their best to try to get something out of an interview like that," he says. "But the powerful think about it in terms of a political statement they can make before a huge audience. That's where being an independent filmmaker has its disadvantages. These people are pretty confident about how they're going to be portrayed on '60 Minutes.' That's harder to control when you're sitting down with an independent reporter for two hours."

Gibney is careful in Mea Maxima Culpa not to question religious beliefs. "This film is a story about the abuse of power," he insists, "and it's not unique to the Catholic Church… Also, it's not about the money," Gibney points out. "If the Church said we're going to release all the documents related to clerical sex abuse and make sure that everybody knows what happened and that the children in the future are protected, I think a lot of this would disappear."

Gibney, one of the hardest-working documentarians in the business, is readying features on WikiLeaks and Lance Armstrong. Faced with releasing a film whose story is still unfolding—the case with Mea Maxima Culpa and Casino Jack and the United States of Money as well—he cites the industry quip, "Film's aren't finished, they're abandoned."
"You run out of time, you run out of money, and at some point you jump ship before the whole boat goes down," he jokes. "But for this film, we felt we reached the right moment to bring this story to rest."

Mea Maxima Culpa opened theatrically on Nov. 16. It will be broadcast on HBO in early 2013.