Today: February 28, 2024

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Recent years have seen a number of lawsuits and investigations into the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. While these investigations may have been quite small to begin with, the publicity surrounding them has been so intense that it has encouraged other abuse survivors to come forward and with each revelation of clerical abuse comes more lawsuits, more investigations, more publicity and more abuse survivors coming forward. The ensuing snowball effect has been so drastic that it has effectively transformed a minor embarrassment to one of humanity’s oldest institutions into something of the order of an existential threat: How can the Catholic Church continue to claim moral authority when it has used that authority to protect men who rape children? As the scandal has grown, it has inspired a number of fictional and documentary films including this one by Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Taxi to the Dark Side.

Much like Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith and Amy J. Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God begins with a small scandal. In this case the scandal involves the priest in charge of an American school for the deaf who used his position to molest the boys in his care. Grounding himself in a series of often incredibly moving interviews with the priest’s victims, Gibney follows the scandal up the Church hierarchy from priest to monsignor, monsignor to bishop, bishop to cardinal and finally all the way to the Pope himself. Indeed, one of the things that distinguishes Gibney’s film from those of Dick and Berg is that while all three films suggest that the Catholic Church shielded priests from prosecution in an attempt to protect the Church’s reputation, Gibney argues that this practice had been a matter of deliberate policy since the 19th Century and that this policy continued under the direct authority of the man who would become the recently-retired Pope Benedict XVI.

Somewhat disappointingly, while Gibney makes much stronger claims than many of his fellow filmmakers, his analysis is more concerned with attributing blame than with understanding the processes at work. For example, Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil places the rape and molestation of 25 Irish children in the wider context of Church culture and how that culture not only encourages people to turn a blind eye to rape but also some decidedly toxic attitudes towards homosexuality and women. Though Mea Maxima Culpa does touch on the issue of Church Culture and allows one talking head to suggest that there might well be something about the Church that actively encourages the recruitment and promotion of sexual predators, Gibney’s interest is obviously elsewhere and so the film simply raises the idea of a connection and then promptly moves on. This lack of deeper analysis is rather unfortunate as the number of films about this particular topic mean that there is a sense of déjà vu about a lot of the material that Gibney covers. As cold as it may sound, there are only so many films you can make about abuse survivors seeking justice from an indifferent and hypocritical bureaucracy before something new needs adding to the mix.

What Gibney does bring to the mix is the idea of building the film around a series of interviews with deaf people. One of the film’s more disturbing motifs is that the abusive priest got away with raping and molesting deaf children because their frequently non-deaf parents struggled to communicate with them.

Similarly, when Church authorities investigated the abuse allegations, they did not bother to interview any of the students because they were deaf and thus deemed incapable of speaking for themselves. Gibney films his interviews with the survivors using an elegantly subdued form of lighting that beautifully emphasises the expressiveness of their faces. Also important is the fact that, rather than systematically cutting away from the survivors and having their words translated by non-deaf actors, Gibney keeps the audience’s attention firmly on the survivors allowing them to communicate their own feelings in their own words and in their own language. This choice of interview technique is important because Mea Maxima Culpa is not just about the Catholic Church’s attempts to cover-up decades of sexual abuse, it is also about giving a voice to people who had theirs taken away by a Church that claimed to have their best interests at heart.

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