Director Alex Gibney Says The Pope's Resignation 'Inextricably Linked' to Sex Abuse Scandal
Pope Benedict’s XVI’s resignation “seems to me inextricably linked to the sex abuse crisis,” Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, whose newest documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, exposes those abuses, said in the wake of Monday’s surprise announcement.
“I don’t have proof that that’s so, but it just seems like it,” the director said, noting that in addition to his own film, which began airing on HBO on Feb. 4, there has been a new wave of coverage of the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sex scandal because of the recent court order that forced the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles to release its files, documenting how Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other officials covered up the cases of 122 priests accused or convicted of molesting children, as well as a widening investigation in Australia.
The timing of the 85-year-old pontiff’s announcement citing his failing strength “of mind and body” took the world by surprise as he becomes the first pope in nearly 600 years to step down from the office. “It is very strange,” said Gibney. “It’s two days before Ash Wednesday. Because of the way that the conclave works, it means no pope will probably reside over Easter Sunday Mass. You wonder if there is another shoe to drop.”
Of Benedict, Gibney said: “I think his papacy will always be saddled with the stain of the sex abuse crisis. While he did some things to try to mitigate it, he never ever took responsibility in any kind of substantial way, and this is the man who knows more about clerical sex abuse than any person on the planet because of what he did between 2001 and 2005 as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was always trying try to make it go away, and it wouldn’t go away, because he never fundamentally understood how deep was the pain and the crime and never was willing to hold himself and the church to account for having done what it did.”
However, Gibney did see one positive step in the pope’s resignation: “I actually give him credit for one thing, which is the actual act of resigning. For me, it proves the papacy is in the modern era. It makes us all remember that these are just men in office.”
Gibney’s film follows the decades-long efforts of five deaf men who were abused as boys by one predatory priest during the 1960s at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wis. Taking their case first to local authorities and eventually to the Vatican itself, they were consistently rebuffed. As the film documents, the pope, in his previous role as Cardinal Ratzinger, had ordered that all reports of sex abuse be channeled to his office at the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith.
An Oscar winner for his 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, which looked at the use of torture in the U.S. war on terror, Gibney said he was “stunned” when his first heard of the papal resignation. “My first thought was for the guys, those five deaf guys, one of whom has died. I’ve got to believe there is some great sense of relief and justice. Think how long they tried to have their voices heard and how determined they were to finally see the first pope to resign in 600 years. That’s got to bring some joy and some satisfaction that there is justice.”
He quickly heard from two of the men whose stories he tells in his film. They “expressed great joy that he had resigned,” he said. “They felt he was a symbolic figure for them, and his resignation showed some sense of accountability from the church. So, yes, they were actually joyful.”
As he was speaking, he received an email another of them, Terry Kohut, a central figure in the documentary, who wrote: “Finally. Many, many thanks to you and your crew for spreading our word, because we want to protect all innocent children. May the universe bless you.”
Mea Maxima Culpa had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. While the film was sharply criticized by the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, the Vatican has had no official response to it. “The film is called Silence in the House of God, and the church remained silent to the very end,” Gibney said.
It is scheduled to open in March in Italy, where the publishing house Feltrinelli Editore is planning a theatrical release. It will be released in the U.K. and Ireland on Friday, two days after Ash Wednesday. Gibney said that as soon as possible he intends to add an end card to the film stating the fact of Benedict’s resignation.
Summing up his current assessment of the resigning pope, Gibney said: “He’s a peculiar figure, because there are moments when he did seem to move strongly in the sex abuse crisis and then would always back off, always protect the institution. One would hope that maybe when he is not pope, he will actually do something that will be positive. Because this hasn’t happened in 600 years. Imagine the pope saying something, outside of the office, that would begin to heal the pain that has been caused by the church. I’m not optimistic. I’m pessimistic. But I’m hopeful.”