Film Review: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

This disturbing documentary takes a revealingly close look at rampant clerical pedophilia—but its sweeping overview of the Catholic Church’s willful obliviousness is just as eye-opening.

By now, the seemingly endless reports of child molestation by clergymen worldwide is unfortunately old news. But our general awareness of this especially heinous phenomenon does nothing to diminish the impact of Mea Maxima Culpa, which takes a close look at an insidious social cancer with hard-hitting journalistic clarity.

Written and directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side), the film delivers much of its impact with the reportage of sheer numbers: The number of children that one priest in one school can sexually abuse. The number of years it can go on. The number of cases that have been reported in a single diocese, in one city, in cities all over the world. But where Gibney finds his emotional resonance is in the stories of four former students at St. John’s School for the Deaf, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—where the senior priest on the faculty, Father Lawrence Murphy, reportedly molested and/or raped anywhere from 100 to 200 boys over the course of two or three decades. Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinski and Bob Bolger are the ones we get to know well. They are the faces of this film’s portrait of sexual victimization—and of its final notes of resilience and personal triumph.

Picking up its storyline in the early 1960s (although Father Murphy’s transgressions may date back at least another decade), this conventionally structured but solidly built narrative follows a mostly linear timeline that begins within the walls of St. John’s and ultimately leads to the Papal office in Rome. Combining surprisingly plentiful home-movie-quality snippets, lots of archival news footage and photos, numerous talking-head interviews and the occasional, relatively subtle re-enactment scene, the film dramatizes the memories of Terry, Gary, Arthur and Bob, to vividly evoke Father Murphy’s reign of terror. Each man has his own nightmarish story, and yet they are essentially the same: Dazed, confused, terrified, each boy submits, powerless, while the most trusted, revered figure in their world violates their bodies and, worse, their psyches, in closets, low-lit corridors, even the confessional.
Decades later, telling it to the camera, all of these victims still quake with anger and pain, furiously signing their accounts of traumatic experiences while actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke and John Slattery provide voiceover translation. Listening to the stories unfold, over years, one’s initial horror and revulsion turns to frustration and outrage, as the men recount their futile attempts to seek justice in a closed world that is seemingly in total denial on every level—from parents (“You can’t say that about a priest—a priest would never do that”) to police and district attorneys who can’t seem to find a charge that will stick, to the various strata of the Catholic Church, which keeps passing the buck, all the way up to the Vatican.

What’s stunning and sobering is the breadth and depth of the Church’s conspiracy of silence. It emanates from a Pope who apparently can’t take action for fear of igniting devastating scandal, and reaches all the way back down to the grassroots—to the priests and nuns who paid visits to Gary Smith’s home, where they badgered, cajoled and confused the boy into retracting his charges against Father Murphy. It is at the moment that Smith relates this anecdote that the cover-up begins to equal the ghastliness of the original crime.

Just as disturbing is what Gibney finds when he looks beyond Milwaukee, at strikingly similar patterns of serial abuse everywhere from Boston to Verona, Italy, to Dublin, Ireland—where it took the arrest and conviction of Father Tony Walsh on charges of serial pedophilia for the Vatican to officially (and publicly) acknowledge his crimes. It’s just one instance, among many, where the Vatican appeared to be guiltily looking the other way. But as this film increasingly turns its attention to the inner workings at St. Peter’s, we are reminded that when it comes to dirty, cold-blooded politics, the highest offices of the world’s most powerful church make the Nixon Watergate White House look like pretty small potatoes.

For all its potency as an exposé, Mea Maxima Culpa might have felt unrelievedly grim and depressing if it didn’t also document the way in which the four St. John’s victims and others like them have channeled their anger into a resolve to go out and grab the justice they’ve deserved. Whether handing out flyers denouncing Father Murphy on the streets, or cathartically confronting him at his home, decades later, or bringing suit against the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, these men, who’ve literally suffered in silence, have finally found a way to let their pain and heartache empower them. They have been heard. In that way, this film does not just enlighten. It inspires.