Special Interest: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

In this feature we discuss pieces of special interest cinema that didn’t necessarily make it to the larger public sphere. Focusing on the differences afforded by independent and foreign studios, Special Interest seeks to draw attention to those that may have slipped by unnoticed.   

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– “My most grievous fault” –

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Mea maxima culpa – my most grievous fault. American documentary director Alex Gibney is long known for his meticulous examination of deep-seated institutional corruption. Consequently, his work regularly finds itself amongst areas of commercial malpractice, political  scandal, and military infraction. However, despite the severity of his chosen subject matter, Gibney often, affectingly, pulls his main focus towards the broader issues of intramural concealment – the extent of which is never less than disquieting.

Gibney’s 23rd film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is no different in this respect. Although the film emulates comparably similar themes of venality and internal misconduct, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is notably singular in its unsettling sense of scale. Undeterred by the interminable weight of the matter presented, Gibney accomplishes a meticulously detailed and deeply personal account of the abuse, and subsequent denial enforced by Catholic canon law. Following this, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God pointedly begs the question; quis custodiet ipsos custodes ? – who will guard the guards themselves ?

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Gibney begins by interviewing four former pupils of St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee – all of which were sexually abused by the charismatic school’s director, Rev. Lawrence Murphy, throughout the entirety their schooling. However, upon the school’s annual visitation by fellow priest Rev. Tony Walsh in 1963, a number of children, including prior student Arthur Budzinski, came forward in the hopes of exposing Rev. Murphy’s criminal offences. Be that as it may, Budzinski recounts an impassioned confrontation occurring between the two fathers, only to see Rev. Walsh turn around and never return.

Following the students’ graduation from the school, a small group of victims start to recall the extent of their abuse, eventually seeking aid from police officials in 1974. Despite further incidents of molestation by Father Murphy being reported at the time, their claim was ultimately dismissed. In reaction to the local police’s seemingly apathetic reception, Bob Bolger, Gary Smith and Arthur Budzinski correspondingly begin to collect sworn affidavits from Rev. Murphy’s other victims, finally sending the report to Archbishop of Milwaukee, William Cousins – his response; silence.

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It is only when the survivors begin to flyer the surrounding area, warning potential victims of Rev. Murphy’s transgressions, that they  are permitted a meeting with Archbp. Cousins. The Archbishop thanked the survivors for bringing Rev. Murphy to the attention of The Archdiocese, but revealed that Rev. Murphy’s history of abuse had been known about since 1957 due to a complaint made by Father Walsh to Archbp. Cousins’ predecessor, Archbp. Albert Meyer.

Gibney’s investigation reveals that prior to his retirement, Archpb. Meyer, upon hearing Rev. Walsh’s report, visited Father Murphy, where he confessed to the numerous accusations. Father Murphy, however, was not laicised by the church, nor given over to police authorities. Instead, Rev. Murphy was sent on a short retreat to The Servants of the Paraclete, whereby he underwent spiritual rehabilitation under the guidance of Father Gerald Fitzgerald. Rev. Murphy, upon completion, was then invited back to St. John’s to supervise children.

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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God‘s pejorative strength lies in its ability to find true sources of intimacy despite its overwhelming detail. In spite of the film’s predominantly localised point of origin, Gibney’s thoroughly exhaustive analysis of pedophilia within the Catholic Church reaches all the way to the upper echelons of the Vatican. Personal statements by various ex/church officials, canon lawyers and councillors for the deaf punctuate the report throughout, subsequently contributing to a throughly grounded summary free from the limiting effects of the Catholic bureaucracy.

The inquiry’s most interesting material, however, is found in the examination of the Catholic system of “universally positive” ecclesiastical laws; the code of canon law. As Gibney dissects the events leading to Pope Benedict XVI’s rise to office, it becomes increasingly apparent that principal dignitaries of the faith were duteously incapable of appropriately informing governmental bodies of the sexual misconduct that surrounded them. Under the divinely immutable legislation and legal system of the Catholic Church, silence was sacred.

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The innate sanctity of silence is a key theme running constant throughout Gibney’s examination of the religious community. The paradoxically damning notion of righteous criminal advocacy through inaction perfectly mirrors the Catholic doctrine’s own corruptibility, and its allegedly unerring statutory procedures. The putative truth to which the sanctity of silence ascribes to forcefully demonstrates both the Church’s liability, and its paralysis in terms of formally addressing its own inadequacy – the extent of which leaves much to be desired.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God does not, however, openly invite criticism of the doctrine alone. Aside from the disconcerting scale of the issue, complicity through apathy habitually permeates the discussion; oft-times intimidating in its own inefficacy. Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, upon being asked why he never thought to contact the victims of his 20 year offending inferior, Rev. Tony Walsh, simply responds: “Oh I suppose I should have, but I had so much to do”. By 2002, Archbp. Connell silently oversaw 28 known abusers in his 12 year obedience to canon law; his episcopal motto: Secundum Verbum Tuum – according to Thy word.

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Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)

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3 responses to “Special Interest: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

  1. Wow! That piece was mind-boggling. Thank you for the review. I would like to say I enjoyed it, but that seems trite in light of the subject matter. I will say I’m glad to know about this documentary and to have read about it.

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