Alex Gibney On What The Pope Knew (And Why He Did Nothing) In 'Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God'

Alex Gibney Interview Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God

Sundays are a good time for soul-searching — which makes it a good time to check in with filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose chilling documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic church,  Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,  is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject as well as the larger issue of what happens when religion becomes big business.  

Alex Gibney Intervew Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of GodGibney's documentary, which is in its second week of theatrical release and will run on HBO in February, begins with the headlines-making case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who, since the 1950s, molested as many as 200 boys at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Although the Vatican had been aware of Murphy's actions since at least the 1960s, he was never defrocked and, in fact, was allowed to remain at the school until 1974 (when he was transferred).

Mea Maxima Culpa, which translates to “My Most Grievous Fault,” takes Gibney all the way to the Vatican, and in this interview, the filmmaker talks about the surprisingly integral roles that the late Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) played in this tragic tale as well as his doubts that the church will ever openly confront this issue in a way that will bring some measure of peace to its many victims.

Movieline: After seeing Mea Maxima Culpa, I thought that it shares a theme with Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. On one level, this is about a giant corporation quashing someone those who dare to challenge its ethics.

Gibney: That's right. It's an abuse of power of sorts.

The Vatican is a corporation.

It's religion that's become a corporation and therein lays the rub. The Vatican has become too seduced by its own power and money. Vatican City is its own state.

What struck me about Mea Maxima Culpa is the arrogance that the church has shown towards those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.

For somebody like Pope Benedict, I don't think it's an arrogance born of malice. I think that the hierarchy intuits itself as a kind of holy order, which is innately better than everyone else and, therefore, can't fathom the idea of punishing one of its own. It's like ratting on a family member. If you find out a brother has committed a crime, you don't go running to the police. But once you’ve started to believe your own hype, even if it’s illogical hype, it can take you to some dark places.

And then you’re in the position of maintaining the illusion that you have done nothing wrong, which entails silencing anyone who says otherwise.

I think many of these people are true believers — even somebody as sick as Father Murphy: In those therapist’s notes he talks about why he did what he did with those children. He said, "Well, I was taking their sins upon myself."

Doesn’t he also say that he was “fixing” rampant homosexuality at the St. John’s School for the Deaf by having sex with the students there?

Right. "I was fixing it." I think rationalizations like that are made because people like Murphy believe in their essential holiness. It's not necessarily Machiavellian where they're sitting there thinking, "Okay, here's the strategy. We shall employ X, Y, or Z." Although recently, I do think there’s some of that as well. Tell me what's going on with Cardinal Dolan, for example, and his maneuvers with the cemetery fund in Milwaukee.

I wasn’t aware of that until I saw your film.

Wasn't that wild? After the deaf victims spend years trying to hold Murphy to account, imagine the vicious irony of the idea that when they petition the church for redress, the church moves its money into the cemetery account so it can continue to protect the grave of Father Murphy over and above the victims.

There’s also remarkable home-video footage you use in which a group of the deaf men confront Murphy, and his caretaker, who knows sign language, is telling one of the men that he should drop this because he’s a Catholic above all.

It's Murphy's helper. She had been a helper at the school and, yes, she's signing furiously saying you are Catholic, you are Catholic. As if to say, you know, the church is more important. You can cut this guy some slack because we don't want the enemies of the church to have access to any of this information. Put your religion ahead of your petty grievances — the fact that you and so many other children have been abused.



There's a technical aspect of the film that I wanted to ask you about:  Your interviews with the deaf men, who are using sign language to communicate, have an almost 3D quality.

Yeah, we did something. We used a variable shutter — it’s what Spielberg used in Saving Private Ryan — so that there's a kind of flutter to the hands that makes them resonate more.

It does. I really felt the emotion and the pain behind their gestures.

We actually shot those interviews with three, sometimes four cameras because we wanted to have one camera that took a complete record of their signing, which included their facial gestures and their hands. We wanted another camera that was more impressionistic in terms of being able to move in from the face to the hands,  and so forth. We wanted a side angle, of course, and sometimes we would use a fourth camera just to get more details because we really wanted to bring that world to life for the hearing audience. There's something so rich about their language that it's very powerful to capture, particularly because their deafness was so much at the heart of this story. They were the voices that could not be heard. Yet, they made themselves heard by dint of their determination.

You also use recreations in Mea Maxima Culpa to depict aspects of the Father Murphy story. What led to your decision to take that route?

Frankly I was a little nervous about it. We shot some pretty extensive recreations on this one. I hate that word — recreation — but it just seemed that there’s something so poignant about the way Murphy entered that dorm room. I wanted to capture that hallucinatory quality, because the aspect of the story that most people found so haunting is that these children couldn’t hear him coming. That's how vulnerable they were. Like the fox in the henhouse, he had them available to him at any time.

You quote a letter from one of Murphy’s victims in which he says that he used to lay in bed shaking at night.

Yeah, because you never knew when he was going to come in and touch you or one of your friends.

In the film, you indicate that while Pope John Paul II was on his deathbed, the future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger, who oversaw all of the sex abuse cases at the Vatican, sent his chief prosecutor to New York and Mexico City to gather evidence about alleged sexual abuses by Marcial Maciel Degollado, who ran the Legion of Christ and raised a lot of money for the Vatican.

As John Paul is dying, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees all of the sexual abuse cases, sends his chief prosecutor to New York and Mexico City to take testimony so they can build a case against Maciel. Ratzinger was legitimately furious at Maciel, but Maciel had very powerful protectors, notably John Paul and Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Ratzinger becomes Pope but Maciel was never tried under canonical law. It shows that —

Even the Pope is not all powerful.

That was a revelation to me.

That is in essence the banality of evil. Pope Benedict has to play these political games instead of assuming the mantle of God and rendering punishment to somebody. He doesn't. We don't know if some kind of deal was cut by Sodano, or if Benedict was simply doing an Obama-like thing and saying we're going to go forward, not backwards.

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  • Anonymous says:

    Gibney's film has not gone without charges of serious factual issues, misleading claims, and virulent anti-Catholicism:


    • hrh says:

      Your two sources are nothing more than apologists for clergy rapists. Shame on you.

    • June Annette says:

      Sir, you need to take a long hard look in the mirror before you start calling people Catholic haters! Your anger, outrage and indignation is grossly misguided and misdirected. I suggest you take a closer look at those within your own faith community!
      Roman Catholic priests . . those whom your “church” calls “Christ's representatives on earth” abused Roman Catholic children. Roman Catholic bishops transferred known abusive priests to other Roman Catholic parishes unbeknownst to the Roman Catholic laity where they could prey on more Roman Catholic children. The so-called “princes of your church” failed to protect Roman Catholic children but opted instead to cover up their crimes for the “good of the church” and to shield them from prosecution and you have the gall to call others “Catholic haters”? ? ? That’s reckless endangerment; that’s criminal negligence; that’s reprehensible; and legally equates to FRAUD. Knowingly placing children in harm's way constitutes a willful disregard for others and violates what Christ defined as the second greatest commandment, namely to “love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 22;39) Failure to protect the “little ones” in their flock is a refutation of the most fundamental Christian principles of love, mercy and compassion. The collective failure on the part of the so-called “princes of the church” to respond to victims in a pastoral way is both contemptible and anti-Christian! The Bishops have effectively turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight of the victims of this heinous crime and have spurned Christ's command to be our brother's keeper!
      My friend, the most virulent, (and I might add diabolical) form of “anti-Catholicism” in TRUTH was and continues to be that which is perpetrated by members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against their fellow Roman Catholics!

  • June Annette says:

    Mr. Gibney has exposed the egriegous abuse of power displayed by the so-called “princes of the church” who sought to conceal the despicable crimes of their abusive priests. No longer will their vile crimes be suppressed and buried in an institution shrouded in secrecy and darkness. The world community now knows there's nothing HOLY about the Roman Catholic “church.” and the only thing transperant about them is their obsession with secrecy and their penchant for cover up. The reason is equally transperant to all who look on .. . they have plenty to hide .Never again can those who commit that which the Vatican herself describes as the “worst crime”, namely the abuse of children, hide beneath the cloak of religion. The heretofore impregnable walls of silence that have encased the Vatican have finally been breached. Mr. Gibney's moving documentary has given a powerful voice to the countless victims of Roman Catholic clergy abuse and is deserving of worldwide recognition and distribution. It is my earnest prayer that it will be shown across the globe. “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; nor hid, that shall not be known.” (Luke 12:2).
    In the interest of truth, transperancy and justice the harrowing accounts of the horrific crimes committed by Roman Catholic clerics perpetrated against the most weak and vulnerable amongst us must be told. In the interest of common decency, the depraved and lewd acts committed in secret by these unscrupulous men of the cloth must be exposed. The time is long overdue for the Voice of the Victims to be heard above the self-righteous and sanctimonious cacophony of the unrepentant RCC hierarchy. Time for the VICTIMS to come out of the closet in which they so long cowered in fear and shame. Time to hear of the forgotten children who were treated as chattel, whose morals were corrupted, whose bodies were defiled, whose innocence was stolen, whose spirits were crushed and souls destroyed by those who were entrusted to their care. The time has come for predator priests and bombastic bishops who abused their position and power to know what it is to feel utterly POWERLESS! Time for the abusers to endure the torment, grief and anguish in their souls that their innocent victims endured for decades in unbearable silence. Time for them to be publicly shamed and censured by the world community for committing the unspeakable crime of child abuse.

    God's Word.. Eccl. 3:7b:
    “.... a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;”.

    Silence is no virtue in the face of such unbridled, such unchecked, such unspeakable, such gross, unconscionable and blatant evil. See no evil; Hear no evil; Speak noevil... or... “Deliver us from evil.” (Matt. 6:13)

    Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    In solidarity with the VICTIMS of Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse & those who advocate for them,


  • Ken says:

    A nice puff piece interview with this religious bigot director and his movie of abject fiction. If the same were said of blacks or Jews, he would be arrested for hate crimes.

    Go here to learn the truth about the media's jihad of exaggeration, bias and misinformation about the Catholic church and sex abuse.

    Stop the bias! Stop the lies! Tell the truth!

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses hit with $28 million sex abuse settlement Oakland,Calif.-Google it.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses have many issues with sexual molestation of children.The religion and its members are more concerned about protecting the group image than the victims.

    TWO WITNESSES required.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses require ‘two witnesses’ to a crime or it didn’t happen,you are supposed to ‘leave it in
    Jehovah’s hands’ wait on the lord.
    How many pedophiles allow an eyewitness?
    These people engage in a door to door ministry, possibly exposing children to pedophiles.
    The Watchtower corporation has paid out millions in settlement money already.
    Danny Haszard *tell the truth don't be afraid*

  • June Annette says:

    The tragic story of deaf children who were the victims of the most heinous form of abuse meted out by Roman Catholic priests and the shameless cover up by their bosses . . the BISHOPS is not isolated to this school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A similar case is unfolding in Quebec, Canada as recently reported by the Montreal Gazette here:


    EXCERPT from Article:

    This case may turn out to be the worst ever seen involving the abuse of deaf children. Unlike the previous record, held by a single Roman Catholic priest, Lawrence Murphy of Wisconsin, in Quebec more than 30 clergy are alleged to have abused the deaf children in their care, sometimes one after another. (Murphy, who may have sexually assaulted as many as 200 children at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, was denounced in 1996 to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican took no action against Murphy, who died in 1998.)
    In Quebec, the alleged victims of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur were given permission by Superior Court in March to pursue a class-action suit against the religious order. Named in the suit are 28 priests and brothers and six lay workers

    I might also add that in a recent interview with the New York Post here:

    Mr. Gibney said:
    ““The direct connection of the Vatican to this sheds light on the way they’ve shoved this stuff under the carpet,” says Gibney, who discovered a similar scandal involving deaf students in Verona, Italy, while making the film.
    “Who knew an ‘anomalous’ story about a priest abusing 200 deaf children in Milwaukee would be a testament to the predatory nature of this problem? We found a worldwide pattern.”

    Only those whose conscience is seared and whose vision is so blinded by their misguided sense of loyalty would seek to defend this morally and spiritually bankrupt organization masquerading as a “church”!. In truth . . . the foundations of the self-proclaimed “one true church of Jesus Christ” are crumbling / collapsing under the insupportable weight of the rot and corruption that lurks beneath the surface of its’ pretentious pious exterior.

    In solidarity with the VICTIMS of Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse & those who advocate for them,


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