On February 5, a remarkable and shocking documentary debuted on HBO, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The film documents the long, sordid history of the Catholic Church in not only failing to deal with the widespread problem of pedophile priests, but in the systematic cover-up of these horrific crimes.
Other films and books have dealt with pedophilia in the Church, but what is shocking here is the unraveling of the culpability that goes all the way to the top – to the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI himself (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to whom all abuse charges were funneled). The Church hierarchy’s shameful record of denial, obstruction, and a code of silence allowed countless children around the world to be sexually molested and raped by priests charged with their care. The well-being of these victims, children scarred for life by the sickening abuse, never emerges as the uppermost concern of the Church hierarchy. Indeed the children seem invisible. Rather, the Church’s concern is solely for itself – its reputation, its image, and yes, its wealth (some parishes engaged in accounting tricks to shelter their money while filing for bankruptcy when sued by victims).
The film focuses on the Rev. Lawrence Murphy who ran a Catholic school for the deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during which time he molested and raped hundreds of boys at the school, many repeatedly. The documentary follows the lives of a few of those molested as they struggle with their personal demons, with the criminal justice system, and with a Church that refuses to protect the innocent and instead protects itself.
The case of Father Murphy is important, not only because it involved the first public revelations of sex abuse by priests in America, but because those courageous souls protesting, against all odds, were deaf and marginalized by their inability to communicate to a hearing audience. Indeed, the predatory cleric sought out children whose parents did not know sign language, so these children could not make their horrendous experiences known. Their nearly lifelong struggles to be heard are profoundly inspirational.
Prior to the case of Father Murphy, pedophilia in the Church was believed to involve a few bad apples. Sadly, countless pedophile priests began to emerge in parishes and Catholic schools around the United States and the world. As the Academy award-winning filmmaker responsible for this documentary, Alex Gibney, puts it, “You could see this sex abuse crisis not as a few bad apples, but of a rotten barrel.”
Gibney adds, “We can accept that there are predators everywhere—Boy Scouts, Penn State—but what the Catholic Church is clearly responsible for is harboring those predators, not punishing them, moving them around [to other parishes].” The documentary will be replayed on HBO.
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