Child sexual assault. The rape of minors. Paedophilia. THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN. Why am I repeating this horrifying practice? Because by virtue of it being such a detestable, deplorable act it remains resolutely taboo and a sore topic of conversation for many, especially if the perpetrators belong to the beloved Catholic Church. However, films such as Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God are working to dismantle the silence surrounding these crimes against humanity by casting a not so divine light over what has hitherto been shushed and kept under the golden rugs of the Vatican.
Lawrence Murphy was a Catholic priest serving at the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A servant to his own paedophiliac urges rather than his holy order, the trusted and supposed 'moral guide' molested, raped and sexually assaulted scores of young deaf boys at a Catholic school for the deaf throughout the sixties. Directed by Alex Gibney (Client 9, Taxi to the Dark Side), several survivors of the abuse lay their heartfelt testimonies bare to the camera, and their efforts to oust the deranged priest are outlined. Knotty inner-workings of the Vatican combine with the victims' quest for justice, and the result is as riveting as it is heartbreaking.
A documentary is only as effective as its source material is reliable, and Mea Maxima Culpa (which translates as "through my most grievous fault") beyond succeeds in this department. Newspaper articles, witness testimonies and stock footage abound, but where this film truly excels is at the sheer amount of relevant faces which show up. Aside from the survivors, everyone from lawyers to journalists, disillusioned former clergymen to defenders of the faith and many more besides all make an appearance, and each one of them has an interesting point to make.
While any film dealing with such a sensitive topic could quite easily rely on pure emotion to hook the viewer in and whip them into a vitriol-fuelled church hating frenzy, but what this film rather cleverly does is it withholds labelling. It does not overtly brand the church 'despicable', 'shameful', 'borderline evil' or any other equally deserving term; rather, it lets the viewer decide for themselves. This avoidance of hyperbole is tactful on two levels: one, the audience's own reaction is more authentic in its outrage, and secondly it repels the notion of this being considered an 'anti-Catholic' movie. A more apt label would be a 'pro-facts' flick.
If any complaints are to be found with this movie, they surely stem from merely aesthetic grounds; distributors HBO Films are clearly an influence, as several moments feel very "Discovery Channel" in their presentation. Some have complained about the film lacking focus, that it meanders through abuse scandals in Dublin, Boston and Rome, and in turn loses sight of its original Milwaukee beginnings. However, I would argue that Gibney uses the early Wisconsin location as a springboard from which to bounce on to similar cases worldwide. The cover-ups are global, and as such this is a transcontinental issue.
Devastatingly poignant, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is a damning condemnation of the Catholic Church, and specifically the authorities within the Vatican, regarding their refusal to bring blatant criminals to justice. How one could call themselves a supporter of the institution after watching this, I have no idea.