David Neary on Alex Gibney’s hard-hitting documentary, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (14-24 February 2013)

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Fri, 15th February
Light House 1
107 mins

Who better to tackle the unsettling, knotty subject of child sexual abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church than Alex Gibney? The director’s documentaries, from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to Casino Jack and the United States of Money, have always tackled powerful men and their abuse of that power. As Mea Maxima Culpa is keen to point out, there is no corporation in the world more powerful than the Catholic Church; no CEO as powerful as the Pope.

Receiving its Irish premiere at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the very week that Josef Ratzinger announced he was to hang up his very large hat (Gibney claims no responsibility for this news), Mea Maxima Culpa seems simultaneously dated and thrillingly current. A lawsuit detailed within the film, taken by victims of clerical sex abuse against Pope Benedict XVI, gets shot down because the head of another state cannot be brought before a foreign court. All of a sudden, the events of the film take on new meaning.

Mea Maxima Culpa takes as its cornerstone the Father Lawrence Murphy case, in which a priest and educator sexually abused some 200 students at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, between 1950 and 1974. Interviews with four of his victims, some of whom have only spoken out about their suffering in recent years, help break down the horrific circle of secrecy that allowed this monster to go unpunished, and unimpeded, for so long.

Gibney fleshes out the story from here by touching upon abuse cases in Boston and Italy and, thanks to Irish Film Board funding, a lengthy stay in Ireland. But this is all padding (and the Irish abuse cases are more than deserving of their own feature-length doc), and it is not until Mea Maxima Culpa tackles the rotten heart of the Roman Curia, the sins of Pope John Paul II and the mishandling of the scandals by Ratzinger that the meat of the story is truly exposed.

Finely assembled from source materials, bolstered by re-enactments and location shooting, Gibney’s film allows its line-up of victims and legal experts to judge the abusers and those who shielded them from scrutiny, rather than going on the attack itself. There is not much new to learn from the film, but the sheer emotional weight of all the horrors the Church and its ‘servants’ have committed, when piled together like this, hit hard.

When the film ended, half the audience was in tears, the other half was visibly fuming with rage. No matter how much these issues are dealt with, talked out and reparations are made, those feelings will not disappear.

David Neary


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