Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney made his name helming critical and insightful exposés and large-scale takedowns of the institutions and establishments that govern modern life. The first big splash came with the enlightening Bush-era exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (05), an adaptation of the book chronicling the collapse of the notorious corporation and the subsequent criminal trials of its head honchos. Taxi to the Dark Side (07) was another milestone that took an investigative look at the murder of an Afghan taxi driver at the hands of American soldiers before broadening into an evaluation of the United States’ political stance on and cultural obsession with torture.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God follows a similar structure to Taxi, looking at a particular instance of injustice and expanding that into a critique of a greater institutional power—in this case, the Catholic Church. The film takes as its subject the accounts of clerical sexual abuse that have exploded in the media over the past decade—stories that had mostly been silenced (though, on film, Kirby Dick’s 2004 Twist of Faith marks one exception). Gibney works primarily with four men who attended a school for the deaf in Milwaukee in the 1960s, where they and many others were repeatedly abused by the now infamous Father Lawrence Murphy. Interviews and photos and home movies with Murphy (once innocuous, now haunting) tell their stories, while Gibney pushes the film’s scope out further with each passing minute. He investigates the different strata of power in the church hierarchy—local, national, and international—that systematically ignored and rebuffed proof of abuse. Gibney’s story of the cover-up reaches far beyond the ill-fated school in Milwaukee, and into churches across the globe, winding its way inevitably and most disturbingly to the highest level of corruption, to the Vatican.
Formally, the film is all about momentum. The propulsive score and quick, dramatic cuts constantly drive the film forward—to a breaking point with the victims, to the victims’ confrontation with members of the clerical and legal authorities alike, all the way to a bitter legal battle 40 years in the making. The incendiary nature of the film is aided by enthusiastic voiceover from four recognizable actors translating for the deaf participants—Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, John Slattery, and Jamey Sheridan—though at times the result is a bit jarring and uncanny. These audiovisual choices, sometimes discordant, fulfill their intended purpose to rile up the viewer, and make clear that this film is a call to action—a story about people who are not just victims, but activists.
By virtue of dealing with two connected but mostly separate stories (the Lawrence Murphy incidents, and more generally the Church’s global corruption scandal), the film is an uneven accomplishment. It’s strongest when dealing with the personal stories of the four men but loses some steam as the claims get bigger and Gibney attempts to take on the Vatican. Still, that’s what the film ultimately targets: the failure of the larger institution. The numbers are staggering (hundreds of priests with hundreds of victims), the facts are outrageous (at one point the Catholic Church attempts to buy an island in the Caribbean where they intend to send all of the priests with sexual transgressions), and the authorities involved are shocking—Pope Benedict, at the time Cardinal Ratzinger, is very much at the center of Church intransigence. Ratzinger himself requested that all cases of priestly misconduct with minors come to his desk, making all the more inconceivable the Church’s continued defense of the priests and repudiation of the victims.
Whether this sort of exposé yields catharsis through the spotlight on injustice, or only frustrates further by forcing the viewer to confront an injustice about which they can’t do anything but watch, its litany of innocence violated by deeply trusted authority figures arouses strong feeling. Though past media coverage of such scandals means the film does not have the same edge as Taxi to the Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa is nonetheless well done and compelling, and at its strongest when focusing on the bravery of these four deaf men who broke the silence.