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TORONTO — One particularly upsetting tale of exploitation serves as the entry point for a wider look at Catholic sex abuse in Alex Gibney‘s Mea Maxima Culpa, a film less about exposing fresh horrors than solidifying an argument much of the non-Catholic world already feels is well made. Gibney’s tone will sometimes give ammo to those quick to conflate prosecution of crimes with persecution of an entire religion, but the journalism here should prove hard to debunk. Sure to draw attention in its eventual HBO run, the doc could make a solid theatrical showing if marketers can convince auds it isn’t just a rehash of the past decade’s headlines.
For most of its first hour, actually, the film seems interested not in the globe-spanning scandal but in just one case: that of Father Lawrence Murphy, who molested hundreds of students in a Milwaukee school for the deaf beginning in the 1950s. Gibney interviews four middle-aged men who, together with a fifth, launched what was reportedly the first public attempt to expose clerical sex abuse in the U.S. Their story is gripping not only for the extremity of what they endured — abuse everywhere from the confessional booth to a dormitory where students could hear their classmates being molested — but for the boldness of their protest: When their initial attempts to subtly oust Murphy failed, they grew increasingly explicit and public in accusing him of abusing boys.
Focusing on these four deaf interview subjects allows Gibney to add production value, recruiting actors including Chris Cooper and John Slattery to speak the words they sign on camera. But the men hardly need help — their expressive faces and gestures speak volumes, and individual personalities emerge quickly. Similarly, Gibney goes a bit overboard in staging reenactments of their story, overdramatizing lighting and music in scenes where subtlety could hardly have diminished the shock of what’s being depicted.
While discussing Murphy’s crimes, Gibney brings in outside voices for perspective. Richard Sipe, for instance — a former Benedictine monk who worked with errant priests and went on to research the sex lives of clergy, claiming to have found that at any given time less than half of the world’s priests are practicing celibacy. (Which is not, of course, to say that half are abusing children.) We also meet Patrick Wall, a former monk who thought his job was to uncover crimes, but instead was encouraged to sweep them under the rug.
Eventually, the film moves outward, addressing the wave of reports that emerged around the world in the 2000s. We meet several journalists and lawyers who have pursued these cases, including Rome-based reporters who specialize in Vatican issues. The result is a more comprehensive picture of the institutional architecture and theological assumptions that, according to Gibney and a host of interviewees from both within and without the church, have kept this situation practically unfixable. The film pointedly asserts that Pope Benedict XVI, years before his election as Pope, ordered that all sex abuse cases involving minors, worldwide, be sent to his office — making any claim of ignorance or excuse for inaction hard to defend.
As do stories of the Servants of the Paraclete, the congregation tasked with healing, among others, pedophiles in the clergy. Though its founder, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, believed abusive priests should be separated from the church, he was overruled: The church’s policy became to “treat” priests known to have committed abuse, then circulate them elsewhere in the church, all without acknowledging their crimes to law enforcement.
Questions of the law are complicated when they involve an institution that has been allowed for decades to behave like a sovereign nation. Toward the film’s end, we hear of legal campaigns, bankruptcies, and suits filed against the Vatican. Mea Maxima Culpa argues persuasively that the Catholic Church is unlikely to fix itself without being forced to by governments that answer not to God, but to citizens.
Production company: Jigsaw, HBO Documentary Films
Director-screenwriter: Alex Gibney
Producers: Jedd Wider, Todd Wider, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes, Sara Bernstein, Kristen Vaurio
Executive producers: Sheila Nevins, Lori Singer, Jessica Kingdon
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Music: Ivor Guest, Robert Logan
Editor: Sloane Klevin
No rating, 106 minutes
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