out of Five
Running time: 106
Impressively directed and thoroughly researched, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a powerful and deeply upsetting documentary that demands to be seen.
What's it all about?
Directed by Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God begins with a letter, written in 1972 by Terry Kohut, alleging that he suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy while a pupil at St John's, a Milwaukee school for the deaf. Three other former students (Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn, Arthur Budzinski) join Terry in signing their horrific stories for the camera (voiced, in turn by Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, John Slattery and Ethan Hawke), detailing the action they have taken over the years to force the church to take action.
The film then widens its scope, looking at similar cases in Boston, Ireland and Rome and uncovering a conspiracy of silence that extends all the way up to the highest levels at the Vatican, including the recently retired (in the week of the film's UK release, no less) Pope Benedict himself, whose job it was to investigate such cases when he was a Cardinal under Pope John Paul II. However, though Father Lawrence Murphy is eventually induced to retire on health grounds and awareness of the scandal continues to grow, little or no action is taken, with the Vatican repeatedly asking churches not to report to the police.
Gibney has assembled a wealth of illustrative material, including photographs, archive footage of St John's and even an extraordinary home movie sequence where Father Lawrence is angrily confronted by his deaf accusers. The film also uncovers compelling evidence as far as the Vatican's silence is concerned, leaving you in no doubt that Ratzinger himself would have been aware of the St John's case (these were no isolated incidents – Murphy is alleged to have assaulted over 200 boys during his time at St John's and repeatedly used their deafness against them when questioned by police).
The film is careful to point out that there were those within the church who attempted to challenge the policy of silence; Gibney includes interviews with former Benedictine monks Richard Sipe and Patrick J. Wall as well as former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland (himself embroiled in scandal and accused of keeping silent), all of whom talk about the difficulty of forcing the system to address accusations of abuse. Indeed, Sipe (now a mental health counsellor) goes further, labelling the Catholic church as a system that ‘selects, cultivates, protects, defends and produces sexual abusers’.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a powerful, upsetting and ultimately deeply moving film that will leave you shaking with anger at the injustice revealed on screen. Highly recommended.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God (15)