Shelley Marsden meets Oscar-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney to talk about his shocking new film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God and the somewhat timely resignation of Pope Benedict …
Shelley Marsden meets Oscar-winning
documentary-maker Alex Gibney to talk about his shocking new film Mea Maxima
Culpa: Silence In The House of God and the somewhat timely resignation of Pope
bespectacled bald guy sitting in the Mayfair hotel room seems sincere and more
than a little intense. The latter is not so surprising considering the
heavy-hitting documentary films he tends to make. Two years ago, Esquire
magazine said Gibney “is becoming the most important documentarian of our
time” and it’s not hard to see why.
Gibney was the man behind the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side
(an in-depth look at U.S. torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo
Bay), and the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. When
he chooses a subject matter, he pulls out the stops.
Connecticut-born filmmaker is currently in the editing room with Lance
Armstrong: The Road Back and a music film about Fela Kuti, but today
he’s talking about his latest feather-ruffler, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The
House of God. A powerful body of
reportage, it explores abuse of power in the Catholic Church through the
horrific tales of four deaf men who were abused by Milwaukee priest Fr Lawrence
Murphy– and their mission to expose him. Released in the UK on Friday 15
February, in the same week that Pope Benedict made history by stepping
down, Gibney’s film tells of a cover-up of epic proportions, which begins in
Wisconsin, takes the viewer to Ireland’s churches and finishes up in the
deepest chambers of the Vatican Church. But this is also an important story
about hope, empowerment and the strength of human spirit.
How did the project come about?
It started with a piece in the New
York Times. The story was so horrifying; a guy abusing 200 kids in a deaf
school. It came to me to make a movie about it because of two things – that story had documentary links to
the top, to Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, and it seemed to speak to how the
whole system worked, so I thought that by following this one case, you could go
from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, all the way to the top of the Vatican. The other
thing was, there had been many cases of clerical sex abuse, films about it, and
people talking about victims – the politically correct term is
“survivors”. In this case I
thought, wow, these guys are heroes. They fought for something even though they
were deaf, despite the fact the church was not interested and they couldn’t
really make their voices heard. I discovered along the way that, in 1974, the
leafleting of those flyers around the Milwaukee Cathedral was probably the
first public protest of clerical sex abuse in America.
Did you anticipate the news of the
Not at all. I got a call from CNN at
6.15am; I was in upstate New York and I thought it was a prank call. But they
were calling me for a reaction. It came as a great shock. In a way, I think it
was the best thing about his papacy. Not only the fact that in order to reckon
with his sex abuse scandal he would have to resign, but Popes don’t resign, and
that was very important. To say: “Yes, Pope’s can resign, a Pope should resign,
so I’m resigning.” He’s a man doing a job and I think that is a pretty
There is a fearlessness, not only of
the victims but those defending them. Did you have to be fearless making this
People ask that like there was
someone lurking around every corner. There really wasn’t. Once it came out
there had been a certain number of attacks, the Catholic Church has a thuggish
wing – there is an organisation in America called the Catholic League, run by a
guy named Bill Donohue who calls people all sorts of names and digs up dirt on
them. He really went after Andrew Sullivan who wrote a piece about this on his
blog, so there’s that. But when I was making it, it didn’t seem like there
might be some pushback when we’d finished.
Were you surprised at how much
material from the time was available to you (there was actual video footage of
the priest in question, Lawrence Murphy)?
That always surprises me, but you
know what? It’s so serendipitous, if you look it’s just amazing what you find.
I’ve started a lot of films where it looks like no one is gonna talk and there
is no footage to show, and then you keep digging and the next thing you know,
you turn up with stuff. I mean, Terry Kohut – one of the survivors – shot a lot
of wonderful footage, and believe it or not, some of that footage is promo film
of St. John’s. Then we heard about this videotape of Bob, Arthur and Gary going
to confront Murphy, but we couldn’t find it. One tiny piece had been out on
network news, and we contacted Bob’s family and lo and behold we found the
That’s a stunning scene to watch.
To me it’s the beating heart of the
film, that strange encounter between those guys – particularly Bob Bolger and
Murphy. As a filmmaker, I almost get chills thinking about it, that Bob who
died and knew he was dying, did this. To leave us his last will and testament,
but it ends up being a cinematic moment that has life after death. Now Bob has
his moment in the sun, it’s really fantastic. Nothing is more telling than the
hunched over figure of Murphy saying, “I’m sorry it was a long time ago”. He
just wanted to crawl into his cave, but that woman, his housekeeper Grace, is
signing furiously at Bob saying “You’re a Catholic, you’re a Catholic” and he
keeps saying “No this is not about religion, this is about crime”. That’s it,
in a nutshell. That’s what the story is about.
Have those who spoke up been
empowered since you made this film?
They do feel empowered and honestly,
look the Pope just resigned. The guy at the end goes ‘Deaf Power’, and I don’t
think you can give credit to these guys for taking down the Pope, but I do
think they feel part of something important. That people are finally raising
their voices and saying “Enough”. You have to remember that when the police
came to investigate one of these incidents, they came to talk with Murphy and
they said, “We’ve been told you’ve been abusing children”, and he said, “You
can’t listen to deaf children, they’re retarded.”
You have big names such as Ethan
Hawke doing the voiceovers. How did that come about?
They were moved by the story, and we
cast them intuitively, figuring, if Terry had a voice, what would he sound
like? We came at it that way. A lot of them are Irish-Catholic decent. There
was a decision early on whether we would use voices at all or subtitles;
actually use the silence. But we ultimately decided to use voices because we
felt it would be more emotionally visceral, and frankly, you would pay more
attention to this magnificent visual language, rather than reading subtitles.
How did you convince Archbishop
Weakland to come on board?
I said look, it’s about truth telling.
I was criticised by some survivors groups for including Weakland, I think he
was relatively insensitive to the concerns of victims. I didn’t diminish the
scandal that ended his career, but there is something terribly important about
Weakland’s role in this film. He connects us to Ratzinger in a personal way. He
knew Ratzinger. He goes to Rome to fight for these kids. It’s not just
speculation. This guy was there saying, “We’ve got to go forward with this
clerical trial of Father Murphy” and they turned him down.
A natural reaction to this film is
anger and disillusionment. Was it the case for you making it?
I was angry [laughs]. But there is a
balance here. There’s horror, but then there are the people who fight against
the horror. It also taught me something important about institutions; the
Catholic Church is right to some extent that they aren’t the only institution
that has paedophiles among them. But what you learn from this story is the
degree to which people, who think that they’re doing something good, believe
that it gives them a pass when it comes to other acts that may not be so good.
I’ve been really interested to read recently the work of some psychologists
about how we may be, as human beings, hard-wired to moral mediocrity. It’s like
going out for a long jog and coming home and filling up on chips and dips. We
should all be attentive to the idea that the more ‘pure-hearted’ the
institution claims to be, the more likely there may be some bad deeds going on.
You’ve started projects and realised
you didn’t have enough material to continue – was there a tipping point with
this film where you realised you did?
We knew we had the testimony of a
deaf man at the heart of it, but the tipping point was when we got that footage
of the cabin exchange. That’s a movie. It was like the Enron film; when you
have the audiotapes of the Enron traders that’s it. It’s also a telling moment
too. I don’t believe so strongly as other people do about these arbitrary
distinctions between fiction film and non-fiction film. I think docs are just
legitimately movies as fiction films are – but particularly so when you have
material that you can’t imagine being as effective if you had actors portraying
If the Pope came into this room now,
what would you ask him?
Why did you put the welfare of
Murphy above the welfare of those children? There are bigger questions you
could ask, but I guess I’d like to ask him the smaller one. The other question
you could ask would be, why didn’t you defrock Maciel? Why didn’t you move to
defrock Maciel? You had the power. You were Pope.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The
House of God is released in cinemas from February 15th.