Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

“I represent the church every time I step into the courtroom, because I represent the people and the people are the church.” – Father Thomas Doyle in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Of course when Thomas Doyle utters this line deep into Alex Gibney’s deeply absorbing Mea Maxima Culpa, we know that he is an ordained priest, but one who has been representing victims in the Church abuse scandal, serving as expert witness.  The victims are every bit the members of the community as anybody else in the Church, but the organization – not the religion, but the corporation that appointed itself the keeper therein – failed them, with considerable evidence that “failed” ought not be a present tense term.  The media of course largely sidestepped this reality when covering the conclave naming Pope Francis – either sheepishly describing the scandal as a relic of the past, or just breezily neglecting altogether to focus on the flowing robes.

Father Lawrence Murphy was himself a member of the corporation, running the Saint John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from 1950-1974.  Surrounding him were kids with a physical handicap obviously, and kids who depended on him profoundly (one considers that in the 1950s and 1960s, parents often did not understand or appreciate communication with special needs kids), and kids who were extremely vulnerable marks, if you turned out to be a predator.  Gibney follows four of these children (now grown of course – voiced by actors you all know, but so unobtrusive that you almost totally forget), and we hear their stories in their words.  Murphy abused the kids yes, but he also had established a system much resembling a fraternity.  Former abused students grow into trusted lieutenants, and often abusers themselves.  We hear one of the men talk about offering up somebody else for abuse on an offsite trip – it’s obviously horrible but better him than me.

These were the choices these students had, because they could not communicate with their parents or with other officials – and certainly with the School for the Deaf as the pillar of the community, who could believe them?  Rarely watching a movie have I ever had the sense of loneliness that I got from these stories.  How could the parents have been so blind to their children’s plights?  Where could these kids turn as their childhoods were being robbed from them?  It goes without much saying that these systems totally failed this most exposed population.  This was the stuff that stayed with me, and the strongest parts of Gibney’s film.  Certainly for others, the meticulous case that the Church knew all about these things etc etc etc is a big deal, but being from the Boston area, I knew all about this (hello, Bernard Law).  Where the film works best is a statement on how this failure felt on a human level.  It is a testament to the power of these stories that the simple stuff carries the movie and allows it to transcend some of Gibney’s overly cinematic touches and “dramatic reenactments”.  This is a tough but hopeful story – and one gets the final reckoning won’t take place anytime soon.

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