Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love Gibney’s films; predisposed to not loving the Church
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God debuts in the U.S. on HBO tonight. It opens in U.K. cinemas on February 15. Everyone must see it. Everyone must be prepared to be battered by grief and fury and outrage.
Because you cannot come away from this absolutely damning documentary without acknowledging that the Catholic Church has been a global pedophile ring since at least the mid 19th century. You cannot be halfway through this film and fail to wonder: Why the hell hasn’t the Vatican been sued out of existence? You cannot get past the subsequent explanation of how the fiction of the Vatican as independent political state means it can’t be sued without asking yourself, Well, okay then: why the hell aren’t the leadership of the Vatican “nation” on trial at the Hague right now for crimes against humanity?
“Angry” doesn’t even begin to cover how this film makes me feel. It probably won’t cover you, either.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney has never been a puller of punches, and he has never shied from taking on the most impossibly huge, most multitentacly entrenched, most obscenely powerful of targets: the endemic corruption of the entirety of the American economy in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; the wholesale destruction of American values by the U.S. government in its prosecution of the “War on Terror” in Taxi to the Dark Side. But after Mea Maxima Culpa, the only way Gibney could go bigger is by proving — in his reliably calm, cool, well-documented, journalistic way — that we are in fact living in the Matrix. I’m not sure if there’s an institution that has a greater impact on more people around the planet than the Catholic Church. (You’re not Catholic? That’s great. How many of the multifarious problems facing humanity right now are a result of or made worse by human overpopulation, which has been fostered for centuries by the Church’s anti-birth control policy?) And Gibney destroys it.
Not that any apologist for the Church will see it that way.
Gibney starts simply, with three men who were students at a Catholic school for deaf children in Milwaukee in the 1960s who were sexually abused by a priest there named Lawrence Murphy. The men can speak for themselves now, via sign language (their words are spoken by actors Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery, and Chris Cooper), but their stories are heartbreaking for their long-ago muteness: they were particularly vulnerability as children in a time before deaf culture was as widespread as it is now and deaf kids often had trouble communicating with hearing parents and siblings who could not sign, so even if they did find the bravery to speak of their abuse at the time, they would have been limited in what they could say. Their stories are also heartening, though, for it was they who brought the first legal case against the Catholic Church, in the 1980s, for their abuse, and they who first helped publicize the ongoing coverups — as in how the Church simply moved abusive priests around to new parishes without informing anyone of their crimes rather than removing them from their work entirely — in some audacious ways.
From there, Gibney builds a case both forward from the 1960s and backward to the 1860s and earlier, exploring the Church’s perverse notions of sexuality… like how the same Vatican department that eventually, grudgingly came around to investigating modern reports of child sexual abuse is the same one that once prosecuted the Inquisition, which sexually tortured women accused of being witches. (Punch not pulled? Gibney touches on how torture is inherent in the Church’s philosophy and iconography, how torture — via crucifixion — is revered as a path to God and salvation.) He highlights how the current Pope is fully clued in as to what’s been going on, because he headed that very office in the 1980s. And he makes clear that as far back as the 1860s, the Church was aware of priests who take advantage of children, and even had a retreat for abusive priests early in the 20th century where they might attempt some sort of rehabilitation. All the pathetic excuses that have been made for the epidemic of pedophilia — such as blaming it on modern morality and the sexual revolution — are easily demolished.
It’s plain from what we see here that it’s wrong to call what the Church has done “conspiracy” — it has been the Vatican’s outright policy for at least 150 years, and straight up to the highest levels, to deny and cover up and continue to foster an environment in which pedophiles are ignored or outright aided and abetted.
What I see is something I often see when I look at religion and religious people: Most people who claim to believe in a god don’t actually act like they do. The Church claims that God is the one who calls men to the priesthood… so does that mean that God makes bad choices when he calls pedophiles? And whom do the men who are not pedophiles but enable them think they are fooling? Do they think their God doesn’t know what they’re doing? Or do they not, in fact, truly believe what they preach? Either choice is appalling enough to a nonbeliever. How those who hold an honest faith maintain any allegiance to such a corrupt and quite obviously unfaithful institution is an enormous mystery.
viewed during the 56th BFI London Film Festival