A week after the premiere of Alex Gibney’s new film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. This unprecedented move is the first papal resignation in almost 600 years and comes at a time when the church is riven by its role in countless child-abuse scandals.
Mea Maxima Culpa is a horrifying look at the churches decades-old effort to protect and, in some instances aid sexually predatory priests. The film begins with the first known case of a priest being publicly accused of molestation – Father Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf. The story is told through the testimonials of four former students and tells of how a beloved priest systematically raped and abused more than 200 students in his 24-year tenure.
Through the meticulous presentation of timelines, documents, and interviews with a wide variety of sources Gibney ultimately exposes the Vatican’s shameful record and complicity in the scandals. At no time did the church ever place the welfare of the abused children over their concern for protecting the guilty priests. The church’s record is one of denial, obfuscation and omertà. Lurking at the heart of the story is then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now better known as Pope Benedict XVI.
The story in the film begins with the four boys – Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuhen, and Arthur Budzinski – telling of how Father Murphy routinely went about sexually abusing them. Molestation of any child is untenable, but the fact that these children were preyed upon in part because they were deaf makes it even more disturbing. Murphy, who knew American Sign Language, could often communicate with students when their own parents couldn’t. This tool became a cruel and perverse advantage for him.
When the four deaf students reconnected as young adults and recounted their experiences to each other their shared anger led them to attempt to have Murphy arrested and defrocked. At every turn the Catholic Church rebuked them, first denying the accusations and then eventually settling privately with Terry Kohut in a twisted agreement where the church admitted no guilt and held that Kohut was forever barred from any public disclosure.
Privately, the Catholic Church had known for years of Father Murphy molesting children. As early as 1960, Murphy had confessed to another priest, Father David Walsh in the Archdiocese of Chigago, but was left at St. John’s. Walsh went on to report Murphy to the Vatican and by the time it was revealed Murphy had sexually abused the children in Mea Maxima Culpa, the Vatican had known Murphy was a pedophile for 20 years.
Gibney uses the events at St. John’s as a platform to follow what has become an international scandal for the Catholic Church. The Boston Scandal that resulted in the payouts of millions of dollars and the removal of Cardinal Law and the Irish Scandal resulting in the criminal prosecution of Father Tony Walsh show eerily similar patterns to what happened at St. John’s. In every case the church knew of the child-abuse by priests and chose to hide it. In the eyes of the Church protecting the near-deification of priests was always the paramount concern.
Even, over the years, when some priests attempted to intervene, they were bound by cannon law. This required them to report to their superiors, including the Vatican, but also bound them to secrecy outside the church. Most predatory priests were either reassigned, and their new parishes never informed, or simply left where they were. In almost every case they continued to prey upon children.
Throughout the film it is revealed that every case that went to the Vatican ultimately landed on the desk of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith from 1981 until 2005. In 2001 he put out a decree that all abuse cases would go directly to his desk. By the time he ascended to the papacy in 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI he had become the most knowledgeable person in the world on abuse within the Catholic Church. The comprehensive records he collected remain enshrouded at the Vatican in the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
Meanwhile more cases of child-abuse by priests keep coming to light. Earlier this month documents were released showing how the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles under Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney had tried to stop the investigation into the sexual abuse of hundreds of local children in an effort to protect accused priests. In Germany it was just announced that the Church had called off a national investigation of reported abuse by priests. After pledging transparency and full cooperation, the Church has been accused of attempting to censor the German findings and limit what information would be made public. New cases of abuse by priests are being uncovered in Europe and Latin America.
What Mea Maxima Culpa makes clear is that the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church is complicit in the long and unbelievable history of pedophile priests. As Terry Kohut and others in the film continue to fight for the Vatican to open its archives and release the records on sexual abuse, one thing remains obvious. The man who sits at the head of the church in his cloak of infallibility resigns knowing he had the power to stop this epidemic and failed to act.