DIR/WRI: Alex Gibney • PRO: Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes , Kristen Vaurio, Jedd Wider, Todd Wider • DOP: Lisa Rinzler • ED: ASloane Klevin • DES: Markus Kirschner • CAST: Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, Chris Cooper
Silence provides the unifying theme of Alex Gibney’s provocative documentary concerning child sexual abuse scandals within the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican’s silent response to allegations made by deaf children in a Milwaukee school in the 1960s and 1970s provides a platform from which Gibney begins an elaborate exposé.
Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski provide the most affecting elements of the film, as they tell of their harrowing experiences at the hands of Fr Lawrence Murphy. They explain how Fr Murphy singled them out. Their hearing parents could not sign, so they were unable to tell them about what was going on. They say the nuns at the school turned a blind eye. They say Fr Murphy took some of the boys to his lakeside cabin, where he asked the boys to decide among themselves which one of them would sleep next to him in his bed. They describe the disturbing ways in which Fr Murphy abused them and how the priest, who frequently interpreted their signs, enabling communication with their parents, abused his position of trust.
Gibney’s documentary also literally gives the four victims a voice. Instead of providing subtitles, actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery and Jamey Sheridan provide voiceovers to interpret their signs. This approach amplifies Gibney’s decision to give the victims an opportunity to speak out and be heard about their horrific experiences.
Gibney’s approach to recreation is not so effective. Red back lighting and choices of framing and composition draw more from the horror genre than documentary. A choral arrangement of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ and prayers whispered on the soundtrack are also excessive. The victims’ facial expressions and signing hands need little embellishment to convey their horror and anger.
Gibney’s focus turns from the victims to the response of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He moves from the particulars of the victims at St. John’s School for the Deaf to the general approach the Vatican has taken to cases from the USA and then the world, focusing for some time on the scandals in Ireland, particularly the case of the ‘singing priest’ Tony Walsh. Given extensive media coverage of such issues in Ireland, Irish viewers may find these aspects familiar, though the context Gibney provides is interesting.
Critics might attack the film for its failure to refer to child sex abuse at a wider level (i.e. that child abuse occurs mostly within families), and that this failure exemplifies media actors again exaggerating the scale and impact of priestly abuse. Taking silence as a thematic concern, Gibney makes clear his specific subject. Silence characterises the Roman Catholic Church’s response.
Gibney invited the Vatican to participate and provide interviews for his work, but all requests were declined, a position that plays into the argument that Gibney makes. The lack of an official response makes balance difficult. He finds plenty of talking heads who have much to report on the evolution of the Vatican’s silence. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk, provided counselling for priests. Patrick J. Wall, a ‘fixer’, describes treatment centres for paedophiliac priests. Jeff Anderson represents priests’ victims, or ‘the survivors’.
Gibney’s interviewees outline how the Vatican, including Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, knew, or must have known, how widespread child sexual abuse perpetrated by priests has been. The current Holy Father’s resignation will leave unanswered many questions that the film raises. It appears that Church authorities deliberately adopted an approach of keeping allegations secret, omitted reporting to civil authorities, denied allegations, and moved around priests who their superiors knew to be active paedophiles. They describe funds set aside to settle with alleged victims in return for strict confidentiality agreements. Gibney structures his argument to make the Vatican’s silence appear to continue as policy, as it becomes part of the fabric of his work.
But why didn’t he ask other unofficial commentators to contribute? It also raises an important question that receives little attention. Why do people continue to have such faith in an institution that Gibney characterises as being obsessed with its own power and importance? He features footage of a deaf woman who assists Fr Murphy in his retirement. She questions a victim at Fr Murphy’s home when he comes to demand that the priest hand himself in to the authorities. The footage comes from the victims themselves: Gibney did not seek out people to defend their continuing respect for a powerful institution that refuses to address important questions except on its own terms.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is released on 22nd February 2013