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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (review)

Mea Maxima Culpa Silence in the House of God green light

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

UK
DVD/streaming

Amazon UK DVD
US/Canada release date: Nov 16 2012 | UK release date: Feb 15 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated DC: destroy the Church
MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (contains references to child sexual abuse)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=1186107134 MarkyD

    Wow. I need to see this. My entire extended Catholic family needs to see this. Probably won’t straighten any of them out, but it might at least get them thinking.
    Thing is, I KNOW for a fact that none of them ever will. I’m astounded at the amount of people that prefer to persist in delusion rather than face reality. Astounded.

  • PC

    Thank Christ someone has made this movie and thank the Devil it was Gibney!

    Unfortunately the subject matter of this film is still the stuff of the evening news in this country (Aus) and may get drowned out in the scandal of city-wide pedophile rings and Royal Commissions into the Catholic Church we see every night.

    Like aids, every one of us probably knows someone touched by church-sanctioned pedophilia. My brother-inlaw’s stepson was abused at a Catholic School – a claim supported by evidence gathered by the police. The reaction of the school was to refuse to talk to the parents except through its lawyer and a veiled threat that it could do more damage to the family’s reputation than they could do to the school. This wasn’t the 1960s. It was last month!

  • Rod Ribeiro

    I’d be thrilled to show this to believers in my family, but I think it’ll just reinforce their position that Catholics are evil and corrupt, while born-again Christians are The True Way to Jesus (for a small fee of 10-20% of your lifetime earnings). The Economist just ran an article about the billionaire Pentecostal church leaders in Latin America. Ugh.

  • RogerBW

    I have felt for some time that there’s no way any person with a conscience could remain a member of the Catholic church. (I say nothing about the theology or philosophy; if [insert organisation you think does really good stuff] were as corrupt as this, I’d feel the same way about it. The fact that people are remaining members is, perversely enough, evidence for just how little religion matters in their lives; in the rich West, they ignore this just as they ignored the Pope telling them not to use contraception.

  • Isobel_A

    This is what happens when you deny sexuality to normal adult men and women, by making them celibate priests and nuns, and stigmatise sex as bad. It either attracts already damaged people, or encourages them to behave in damaged ways by perverting normal human sexual feelings.

    It’s like the Catholic church is designed specifically to create paedophiles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.dalmas Rebecca Dalmas

    “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 sounds like you’re implying that all pedophilia can be attributed to the RCC. With respect, that hardly sounds rational.

  • ythri

    I don’t see how any reading of this post can lead to that conclusion. She is specifically talking about pedophilia within the catholic church. The only way to interpret it the way you did is to isolate that one sentence out of context.

  • http://reformamendment.blogspot.com/ Paul Wartenberg

    We are well past the point the Catholic Church should be considered a church: it’s now and has been a criminal conspiracy. The Catholic Church needs to lose their tax exempt status. The Vatican needs to lose international recognition as a separate nation.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Church officials have blamed the fact that their own priests are raping children on the sexual revolution, ie, the supposed decline of morality in the secular world, and nothing to do with the Church.

    But I guess you already know that.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    One point the film makes that I couldn’t quite work into the review is that half of all Catholic priests are *not* celibate, despite having taken that vow. Of course, most of that half are engaged in consensual relationships with other adults, and not raping children.

    But yes, the film does touch on what you say.

  • Ide Cyan

    I’m still glad I officially apostatised years ago.

  • RogerBW

    I think one could reasonably argue that no church should have tax-exempt status except insofar as it is prepared be a charity. I understand that this is why at least one well-known not-a-cult-honest is not registered as a religion in Sweden: they weren’t prepared to open their books to the auditors.

  • LaSargenta

    I don’t think that any church should have tax -exempt status because I don’t think that churches should have employees, income nor property. I argued as much when I got nominated to Property Committee at my Meeting of the Society of Friends. I still don’t understand why (philosophically) we have any property…Matthew 18:20.

  • RogerBW

    The Friends do a great deal better than most, in that respect. If I were a religious sort of person, I like to think I’d drift in their direction.

  • LaSargenta

    Eh, maybe…but, well, I think we could do a lot better.

    Meetings own property. Many, many Friends are really attached to the property. It doesn’t help when it’s an old Meeting House that’s gotten landmarked. Then, there’s the whole issue of the Seminaries. Most of the Meetings here have had schools. Schools by their nature require buildings, maintenance and employees. In many cases, the Seminaries have been divested, we’ve had debates about “what’s Quakerly about the school if all that’s happened is it’s turned into yet another private school”? Debate about mission to the greater society and class issues and tuition and race and ministering to Quakers or even including them…has the school turned into Quaker-Lite? Etc. Etc.

    Another problem in the US is how a non-profit religious institution interacts with the civil government. Quaker Governance doesn’t mesh with (in my particular case) the Corporate Laws of the State of NY. So, we have a very un-Quakerly board of trustees. Yes, they are mostly members of the Meeting. But, the Trustees are both a fiction in the eyes of Quaker Governance and a potentially loose barrel on a tilting deck if the members of the Trustees want something that the Meeting doesn’t…yet the State will only listen to the Trustees. They are the official conduit to the State.

    If we didn’t have property, if we didn’t need to be a Religious Corporation, we wouldn’t have the Trustees’ Committee.

    And so on. I can get really detailed. Must stop. I got Relief of Service over two years ago and I don’t have to think about this anymore. Lol.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rewinn Randall E. Winn

    I hope your family has the strength to publicize that threat to every parishoner and parent of a child at that school. They must do what is best for them, of course, but those other children need protection and the hierarchy needs outing.

  • LaSargenta

    So, Benedict’s resigning and going off to an enclosed religious order.

    My theory (and maybe I should link this post into the Favorite Conspiracy Theory thread) is that he sees a major upheaval coming due to this problem and he will be found to be at the center of the cover-ups and so he is ‘retiring’ to a place where he cannot be called upon by outsiders. Maybe it’ll even be an order with a vow of silence.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.dalmas Rebecca Dalmas

    I didn’t read it that way. I guess I am just a more literal reader.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.dalmas Rebecca Dalmas

    Yes, I knew what you meant, in retrospect.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.dalmas Rebecca Dalmas

    Do you really think the financial influence of churches should be heavier in government? Remember if money flows one way, so does influence. I believe that, rather than allowing all entities of any means be tied to one concentrated central power, it is better that there are influential social entities running as independently of one another as possible.

  • LaSargenta

    Paying taxes doesn’t necessarily increase influence in government.

    I would propose that, in fact, religious organizations already have outsize influence over governments due to the fact they maintain their tax-exempt status. That tax exempt status costs communities large and small a huge amount of money every year in lost revenue from property taxes and capital gains taxes as well as other taxes (they don’t have to pay sales tax, for instance, on supplies). How do they have such influence without paying taxes? The large churches with large donations and lots of members can marshall their congregations to rush to protest against any proposals (and these things do occasionally come up, especially at local levels where financially-stretched municipalities are trying to find ways of funding fire departments, sewage, etc.) to levy any taxes on religious groups.

    (In a way, it looks like the effective subsidization of religion allows lots of groups to still ‘exist’ even though they wouldn’t be able to support their buildings and other property based on the numbers and wealth of their congregations. I am NOT proposing a marketplace competition of religious organizations here, I’m just pointing this out. If anything, this tax-exempt business seems to favor the existence of religious rather than the idea of freedom from religion.)

    My personal position is that a religion is about a spiritual union and that there is no need for property to have that. A building in not necessary for worship. If there was no building, there would be no real estate, no utilities to pay, etc. That is why I cited Matthew.

  • http://www.facebook.com/russ.patterson.359 Russ Patterson Sr.

    After seeing this film, I wholeheartedly hope the Boy Scouts do not vote to allow homosexuals to join their organization. Yes I know that some priests have abused some young girls but I believe the percentage of homosexual abusers is much greater than the percentage of heterosexual abusers.

  • Bluejay

    I’ll let Andrew Sullivan address this for you:

    The truth, I suspect, is that the closeted pedophile is the real danger. And out-of-the-closet adjusted gay men act like Kryptonite on that atmosphere of secrecy, shame and control. An outright ban on gay troop leaders and gay scouts merely encourages and helps legitimize the closet, which facilitates, as in the church, child-rape or abuse.Honesty and sunlight and solid rules to make sure that no single Scout leader is left alone with boys or girls seems to me the most effective way to help sustain this admirable institution. It’s about ethical conduct, regardless of sexual orientation.

  • Danielm80

    Do you have any evidence to back up your opinion? I did a quick Google search and found many, many articles supporting both sides of the argument. Most of them, unsurprisingly, seemed to be extremely partisan. Do you have anything more authoritative to point to?

  • Bluejay

    Also, regarding your belief (based on what?) that there are more gay child-molesters than heterosexual child-molesters: According to the American Psychological Association, you’re wrong.

  • RogerBW

    Well, it doesn’t do the church’s reputation much good for its leader to be someone who’s known to have been involved in cover-ups. My money, though we’ll obviously never find out the truth, is that he was quietly leaned on. If the new chap starts a small purge among other high-rankers, that would support it…

  • RogerBW

    [citation needed] – but you won’t find one, because your belief is incorrect.

  • MichaelM

    As one who grew up thru 8 years in a Roman Catholic grammar school with nuns teaching us, it was a relief to get the hell out of their grasp when I entered a public high-school. Looking back on it now as an atheist, I see that religion as nothing more than sadistic VooDoo.

    Mea Maxima Culpa confirmed everything we already knew about the catholic church and its secret machinations. I see Benny’s departure as a result of the world literally closing in around them for answers to who, when, where, and how many priests are/were involved. And since Benny was the clearinghouse for sexual abuse cases under JP2, he probably just cracked under the pressure.

    Kudos to those men in Milwaukee, the attorneys working to sue the church to release the records, and to Ireland for throwing the Elvis priest into the SLAMMER!

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    *That’s* what you take from this film? Really?

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    Throw his ass in prison. He can be silent there, can’t he?

  • LaSargenta

    Yup. But, he wouldn’t be protected…

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    Recent document dump underscores the ongoing relevance of this documentary. From Salon,
    http://www.salon.com/2013/07/02/huge_document_dump_shows_how_church_covered_abuse/

  • cal

    When I read a story where one of Pope Benedict’s flunkies compared the ordination of women to pedophile priests, calling the two things equally “evil”, I knew that I would maintain my lapsed Catholic status for the rest of my life. Pope F seems like a much more reasonable guy, but I doubt my status will ever change. I can’t accept the church’s stance on women in the priesthood or that of the prohibition of birth control, which I regard as nothing less than criminal.

    Source for article I mentioned: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/world/europe/16vatican.html?_r=2&