Review: 'Mea Maxima Culpa' Gives Voice To a Silent Sex Scandal

I don't speak Latin, but I'm pretty sure that "Mea Maxima Culpa" translates into, "Good grief, don't watch this movie without access to some Excedrin."

Actually, the full title of Alex Gibney's latest muckraking, finger-pointing documentary is "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God." That bit about silence has some extra meaning. In a larger sense it speaks to the "code of omerta," the heartbreaking, institutionalized system of obfuscation concerning the rampant sex abuse that exists within the Catholic Church. More specifically, it speaks to the crimes and subsequent cover-ups at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin. Gibney's film shows how a group of deaf victims, despite being more captive due to their disability, were and remain key figures in exposing the worldwide abuses.

The film opens with a number of deaf adults describing the humiliation they suffered at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy. Manipulating his position as holy man, communications conduit to the outside world and father confessor, a generation of students were terrorized and plunged into a lifetime of confusion and depression. As the liberation movements of the 1970s began, a small core of survivors took to direct action to demand justice, despite passages of limitation statutes.

Following a paper trail, the men (and Gibney's film) follows knowledge of the problem from the fairly remote Wisconsin diocese all the way to the Vatican. Here's where the movie explodes. Gibney breaks down the Vatican's regimented efforts to sweep pedophilia crimes under the rug. These institutional processes don't go back decades, they go back centuries.

Among the bigger bombshells are documents proving that the Church made serious inroads to purchase a small Caribbean island for the sole purpose of dumping child-raping clergy there. This never happened, but a special bureaucratic department devoted to the redistricting (and extra-legal exchanges of money) did exist within the Vatican. Alarmingly, the man at the head of this board, who demanded to personally oversee each case during the peak scandal years, was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - the now current Pope. Why would they go to such lengths to protect these people, rather than just firing them?

This speaks to core religious issues, dating all the way back to Papal Infallibility, which basically argues that Priests are no longer mere mortals. They hold transformative powers (transubstantiation, absolution) and to suggest that these "called" men could be ever brought to mundane, statist justice is an affront to the Holy See. Father Murphy, despite 40 years of documented abuse, died with his title intact.

It is strongly implied that Ratzinger "got the job" because he was a good soldier and protected certain people (among them a rampant molester of children who happened to be a savvy fundraiser and close friend of Pope John Paul II.) A "where are they now" segment regarding the highly publicized cases in Boston is, indeed, infuriating.

Gibney does a remarkable job at keeping this worldwide scandal grounded, by frequently returning to the (ongoing) story of the deaf Wisconsin men. However, the vastness of the issue is really brought home with the recent revelations of a similar case at a deaf school in Italy.

"Mea Maxima Culpa" is well aware of its controversial nature. It is tough to talk about this stuff. This is brought up in the film itself - how well intentioned people often feel the need to dance around injustice when religion is brought into the mix. This frequent reaction, he argues, is a weapon the Church uses to further isolate the accusers - "blaming the victim" takes on an almost divine right when you are protecting the Church.

Gibney's film is not without fault. There is virtually no one speaking rationally in defense of the Church's position. (Mouth-breathing lunatic William Donahue frothing at the mouth on Fox News is shown for a few seconds as a gag.) Furthermore, there are moments of "reaching a bit" with some of the imagery. Forget the questionable reenactments (gorgeously shot by Lisa Rinzler, but still) but a "connect the dots" between the first Pope to govern Vatican City as an independent state and Mussolini, then Mussolini and Adolf Hitler is, in my opinion, a cheap shot.

Nevertheless, "Mea Maxima Culpa" is most striking, I feel, in detailing how sex abuse is still very much a crisis for the Catholic Church. In Ireland (still roiling from the revelations of Father Tony Walsh, who raped a boy at his grandfather's funeral while his case lingered for eight months on Ratzinger's desk) self-identification of Catholicism is as high as ever, but attendance (and donations) are down 50%. Clearly the Vatican needs radical reform, not just to stem this problem, but to address why it is happening.

Grade: B+