Dan Shafer
“Mea Maxima Culpa

Silence in the House of God,” at MFF

Alex Gibney's new documentary, "Mea Maxima Culpa," exposes abuse in the Catholic Church. The film makes its U.S. premiere at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

By - Oct 1st, 2012 09:16 pm


That word clings to abuses in the Catholic Church exposed over the past decade. But “scandal” doesn’t begin to describe the heinous crimes and institutionalized cover-ups detailed in Alex Gibney’s gut-wrenching documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

Father Murphy

The film is utterly enraging, for many of the reasons you might expect from a film addressing abuses in the Catholic Church. But the film goes further. It forges a connection on a personal level through the stories of four men who were repeatedly assaulted as children by Father Lawrence Murphy at the St. John’s School for the Deaf. The film not only presents the widespread abuses as the massive, global, ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy that it is, but also as something that shattered the lives of innocent, vulnerable individuals with no place to turn.

The crux of Mea Maxima Culpa, a Latin liturgical phrase that means “through my very great fault,” is based on events that occurred in our own backyard, in St. Francis, Wis.

Father Murphy abused an estimated 200 children between 1950 and 1974. He crept into his students’ dormitories and molested them in the night. In his “organized system of abuse,” high school students that he abused in turn abused younger students. He singled out students whose parents were not fluent in sign language as a way to keep himself protected. He solicited children during confession.

Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski, students at St. John’s and victims of Murphy’s abuse, are the film’s primary interview subjects. They communicated their stories through sign language and with the help of voice-overs by actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke and John Slattery.

These powerful interviews, along with fictionalized recreations, photos and home videos shot during Murphy’s time at St. John’s, paint a picture of life there. The home videos and interviews carry much greater weight than the recreations. The recreations, however, do not detract from the film’s overall message.

Another St. John’s student, Bob Bolger, who died in 2006, played a crucial role in the film. Along with Smith and Budzinski, Bolger distributed “Most Wanted” posters calling Murphy a “serial child molester.” The film looks to this moment as the first real push back against the pedophilia within the Catholic Church, and these individuals as the first to emerge from silence.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Smith, Budzinski and Bolger confront Murphy at his Boulder Junction, Wis., cabin, years after Murphy had retired. The footage, shot in 1997, shows Bolger screaming at Murphy, saying he should be in jail.

Despite these courageous efforts, Murphy was never brought to justice. He died in 1998 and was buried in a Catholic cemetery.

And that’s where this story speaks to the larger issue of priesthood pedophilia and how far the Church goes to cover up the crimes of the clergy.

The story begins in Milwaukee, and includes familiar locations and individuals, including Archbishop Rembert Weakland (who petitioned the Vatican to recognize Murphy’s crimes) and Archbishop Timothy Dolan (one of the Vatican’s most public defenders). Gibney eventually widens the scope, to examine scandals across America, Europe, and even within the Vatican.

Because of the countless lives affected, millions of dollars spent, victims’ letters ignored, lies told, truths distorted, and perhaps above all, the involvement of Pope Benedict XVI himself, this film must be seen. It’s not comfortable, nor should it be, but it is powerful and affecting and it sends an important message about how the supposed infallibility of the priesthood and Catholic hierarchy can shield criminal behavior. It’s important to note, too, that Gibney sends this message without being critical of the Catholic faith.

Director Alex Gibney

America expressed its outrage over the course of the the last year as crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky came to light, tarnishing the legacy of one of college football’s most storied institutions and ultimately landing the disgraced Penn State assistant coach behind bars. We can only hope that this film reaches enough people to have the same kind of impact on the institution of the Catholic Church. The cries for justice should be deafening.

The Milwaukee Film Festival will host the U.S. Premiere of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, at the Oriental Theatre on Friday, Oct. 5, at 7 p.m. Director Alex Gibney will be in attendance for the film. Several of the film’s subjects will also be in attendance. The screening will be presented with open captioning and the film’s introduction and Q&A will include several sign language interpreters to accommodate the hearing impaired.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, will be released theatrically by HBO Documentary Films in 2013. 

Milwaukee Film is holding a special tribute to Alex Gibney at this year’s festival. His Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, will screen at the Oriental Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 4, at 6:45 p.m. Gibney will be at the theatre for a Q&A after the film. He also selected the 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, for a special screening at this year’s festival, and will be holding a conversation after the 2:15 p.m. screening at the Oriental. 

Other films Gibney has directed include Oscar-nominee, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Mea Maxima Culpa premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Below is a video conducted with Gibney at the festival.

The Milwaukee Film Festival runs through Oct. 11 at the Oriental TheatreDowner Theatre and Fox-Bay Cinema. Check out TCD’s Flick by Flick guides for films opening this weekend and throughout October. For more information, visit the MFF website.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

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