A documentary on the pathology of power in the Catholic Church
Pope Benedict XVI arrives to lead an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Vatican on February 13th this year. photograph: reuters/ alessandro bianchi
Alex Gibney's latest film, on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, alleges a direct link between the outgoing pope and the abuse of children in the US
It seems redundant to note that Alex Gibney’s documentary on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has emerged at an appropriate time. After all, given the endless torrent of grim revelations, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God would, if released at any random point in the last two decades, have chimed with contemporaneous headlines.
The recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has, however, provided the American documentarist with an interesting afterword. The picture focuses closely on the abuse of deaf children in a Wisconsin school from the mid-1960s onwards, who later courageously blew the whistle. The film also implicates the former Joseph Ratzinger in a complex cover-up. Gibney has subsequently suggested that Benedict’s unexpected retirement was linked to the child-abuse scandal.
Visiting Dublin for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Gibney, a taut, bald man with a serious demeanour, backtracks only slightly. “Maybe it would have been better to say that I hoped his resignation was connected to the child-abuse case,” he says. “I hope that for myself and hope that for him. I think it would be sad if it was just that he was tired. That’s what the church was saying.”
The film alleges that Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, halted the canonical trial of a priest named Lawrence Murphy. A teacher at St John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Fr Murphy is alleged to have molested up to 200 boys.
“That is the connection to the top,” Gibney says. “There are documents connecting the Milwaukee case to Joseph Ratzinger, who as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, oversaw this canonical trial of Lawrence Murphy. He intervenes and he stops the canonical trial. That taught us a lot – in a documented way.”
Gibney, an Oscar-winner for Taxi to the Dark Side, is one of America’s most prolific and highly garlanded documentary film-makers. His other movies include studies of such diverse subjects as the Enron scandal, writer Hunter S Thompson, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and – coming our way soon – the enigma that is Julian Assange.
If the current film has a problem it is that it tries to pack too much in. The Milwaukee case leads on to a study of clerical sexual abuse in every corner of the globe. At one point, he touches down in Ireland to ponder the ghastly case of Fr Tony Walsh, the former Elvis impersonator sentenced in December 2010 for abusing hundreds of children.
Such is the mire the Irish church finds itself in that Gibney must have had to choose between a vast array of possible subjects.
“To be honest, at the beginning, we weren’t sure there was going to be an Irish component,” he says. “But what interested me was how quickly the political landscape had changed in Ireland. Civil society was taking charge on a way that was very profound. We came here and decided quite quickly that Tony Walsh was the one. It had a lot of connection to the story in Wisconsin. They were both charismatic priests who used that charisma to get close to their victims. They didn’t lurk in the shadows. It had happened some time ago. But the revelations in the Murphy Report made it relevant again. There were resonances with the past and the present.”
The son of Frank Gibney, a prominent journalist, Alex was raised in a Catholic background and has some understanding of the effect the scandals have had on believers. He admits, however, that the situation is particularly grim in Ireland.
“I was surprised at quite how angry the people were towards the church,” he says. “I kept hearing the word ‘them’ – meaning the hierarchy. A lot of people have great affection for their parish priest. But the idea that skulking in the background were these bureaucrats who were busy hiding predators was something very palpable.”
One might reasonably assume that – so much having been written on this subject – the hierarchy and their apologists would have grown immune to the revelations. But Gibney has had to counter a series of aggressive counter-blasts from aggrieved believers. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was on his case immediately. Did Gibney see that coming?
“I was surprised,” he says. “Look, honestly, there is a very thuggish wing to the American Catholic Church represented by the Catholic League and this guy Bill Donohue. He came after me hard. They also came after Andrew Sullivan, who wrote a very powerful essay on the film and the church. I got that, too. Some assemblyman in Queens has accused me of anti-Catholic bigotry.”
His even tone gains just a hint of bubbling frustration. “It’s bollocks. It’s bullshit. It’s always the defence of the powerful to pretend to be a victim. You see that over and over again. It is part of the pathology of power. We were very careful to separate faith from the crime. This is a crime.”
To force home his point, Gibney refers to the admirable Fr Tom Doyle. A Dominican, Doyle has struggled relentlessly for the victims of clerical sexual abuse. Indeed, in previous interviews, the cleric has described himself as “the most reviled priest in the US”.
“Doyle recalls being asked a number of times why, when he represents so many victims of abuse in court cases, he never acts for the church from time to time,” Gibney says. “He said: ‘What are you talking about? I always act for the church. I act for the faithful. I act for the people in the pews.’ ”
They are the church. “That’s right. That’s right. They are the church.”
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is on limited release from Friday
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