Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God

Directed by Alex Gibney 15 cert, limited release, 105 min

Directed by Alex Gibney 15 cert, limited release, 105 min

 

Directed by Alex Gibney 15 cert, limited release, 105 min

Mea Maxima Culpa – Latin for “through my most grievous fault” – begins as many other films chronicling clerical sexual abuse have: with the distressing testimonies of adult survivors.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Fr Lawrence C Murphy was a jolly, charismatic priest who ran a boarding school for deaf children in Wisconsin. Four of his former charges, now middle-aged men, recall how Murphy groomed isolated children whose parents could not sign, how he prowled their dormitories at night, how he took them into the confessional box for additional “penance”.

The men were among the first to speak out against the priest who systematically abused them and the church that did nothing about it. Their interviews are powerful, brave and – sadly – sickeningly familiar.

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney attempts to unravel the knot of legal and canonical issues that allowed Murphy to die at large and peaceably in 1998. This, alas, is not an isolated incident, but a manifestation of a broader, brick-wall conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

In this spirit, Mea Maxima Culpa offers a wealth of shame-making facts and details regarding the Holy See. The results are engrossing and often devastating, but lack the taut focus of Amy Berg’s similar Deliver Us from Evil (2006).

The inner workings of the Vatican may be interesting but, structurally, the film falters when it loses track of its deaf complainants. A detour to Ballyfermot and an extended section in Rome ought to, one feels, feature in another documentary altogether.

Occasionally, the project’s televisual origins (HBO) tell. The narration is too TV-friendly. Snippets of sinister music and dialogue such as “like the song says – ‘He looked like an angel, talked like an angel’ . . . ” is surely aimed squarely at folks surfing through channels and not at ticket buyers.

As the film sprawls beyond its remit, we get plenty of fascinating research but nothing that works toward a satisfactory denouement. Recent Vatican dispatches might have done the trick. Certainly it’s impossible to leave the cinema without hoping that the Papal resignation and the awful events explored here are not unrelated.

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