No Comment, Six Questions — February 4, 2013, 9:00 am

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Alex Gibney on his documentary investigating the Roman Catholic Church’s handling of child sex-abuse cases

Alex Gibney

Documentary producer Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for his 2007 film Taxi to the Dark Side, will premiere an explosive new film on Monday, February 4, at 9 p.m. on HBO. Titled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, it studies the child-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican’s institutional failure to address it. I put six questions to Gibney about his new film:

1. Your film centers on the tale of a group of young men who silently endured abuse while they were students at a church school for the deaf in Wisconsin. Later in life, they decided to challenge the authority of a church that sheltered their tormenter. What led you to their story?

I read and was moved by Laurie Goodstein’s account in the New York Times. I was drawn to do a movie about it for three reasons. First, the story itself — about a Milwaukee priest named Lawrence Murphy who abused 200 deaf children — was particularly appalling. It also happened to be the patient-zero case of modern clerical sexual abuse: so far as we have been able to determine, the leafletting of the Milwaukee Cathedral by three young deaf men in 1974 is the first public protest over clerical sex abuse in the United States.

Second, many stories had been done about particular cases of abuse, but this story is one in which the cover-up within the Vatican can be documented. The Vatican’s policies on abuse are at the core of my film, and this story makes that clear. For years, the Vatican maintained that, when it came to clerical sex abuse, the bishops were on their own to adjudicate the cases. The correspondence in the Milwaukee story puts the lie to that. When Archbishop Rembert Weakland moved to start a canonical trial, he had to appeal to Rome. Then, in the midst of the process, the Vatican decided to abate the trial out of concern for Father Murphy. So it was the Vatican, rather than the bishops, making the key decisions.

Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who appears in the film, notes that there was a Vatican document governing sexual crimes that involved the confessional. The Crimen Sollicitaticionis demands total secrecy of all involved — including victims — in the investigation and trial of such crimes. While Doyle says that the Crimen was not proof of an explicit conspiracy to keep these matters secret, it was a reflection of an institutional culture that valued secrecy above all else and had the effect of a vast cover-up. 

Third, I was fascinated by the tenacity of the deaf men in their pursuit of justice. Despite the fact that they are deaf, they managed to have their voices “heard.” They are everyday heroes — a bright light in a very dark story.

2. You work hard to isolate the source of the blockade within the church. Between the diocesan officials and the Vatican, where can the blame best be laid?

There is enough blame to go around. Many bishops were at fault. But it became clear to me that the bishops were following the dictates of Rome, which sought to avoid scandal and elude judgments by civil society. A callous disregard for victims permeated the culture of the hierarchy. In the film, one archbishop — Desmond Connell, the former Archbishop of Dublin — is asked why he didn’t notify parents in his archdiocese about the dangers posed by known pedophile priests. His response: “Oh I suppose I should have, but I had so much to do.” Staggering. What was keeping him too busy to protect children? Trimming the cathedral’s Christmas tree?

As for Rome, starting in 2001, all cases of clerical sex abuse in the church were forwarded to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So he may be the most knowledgeable man in the world about clerical sex abuse. Yet even though he saw the parade of horrors of child abuse, did Ratzinger as cardinal, or later as Pope Benedict, mandate reporting to civil authorities? No. When he had a chance, as Pope, to defrock Marcial Maciel, one of the world’s most brutally abusive clerics, did he do it? No. He and the curia around him are unwilling to confront the issue in a serious way. In that sense, it’s a systematic global cover-up of crimes. 

3. One of the more puzzling portraits you offer us is of Archbishop Weakland, a church prelate who has openly acknowledged his homosexuality. Did the church treat him fairly?

Archbishop Weakland is a very important character in the film. He was Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002, and, before that, Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order. He was also at the forefront of the liberal wing of the Catholic Church, a champion for social justice and the rights of women within the church. Early on, he did not cover himself with glory on the issue of clerical sexual abuse. According to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), he was defensive and combative in the face of complaints, and may have sanctioned the shuttling around of abusive priests. In 2002, he was also embroiled in a scandal surrounding charges that he used $450,000 in church funds to pay blackmail to a male lover (a grown man and a consenting adult). Later, he came out as openly gay and now lives on a church pension in Milwaukee. 

Yet he plays a very important role in the story of Father Murphy. In order to get justice for the deaf survivors, he approached Rome to start the canonical trial against Murphy  and argued forcefully that he be defrocked. His efforts failed. Through Weakland, we see how the process works. And through him, we have a personal connection to Ratzinger, whom he knew well. Weakland was initially somewhat insensitive to the issue of clerical sex abuse, but came to understand that he had been wrong. In a deposition, he responds to a lawyer’s question about whether priestly pedophilia is a form of homicide because it takes away a child’s innocence. “If you had asked me that in 1979, I would not have agreed with it,” he said. “If you ask me that now in 2008, I would say in almost every case, yes.” 

At the end of the film he also says this: 

The Church is a perfect society, and it witnesses this perfect society to the rest of the world. If we could get that out of our minds — maybe we take the pedestal away from the priest, take the pedestal away from the cardinals, take the pedestal away from the whole Church, and be willing to say, this is us, world, this is us. This is who we are. We’re a church of imperfect people. Jesus wasn’t afraid of humanity, and we shouldn’t be, either.

It’s a powerful moment. A flawed figure who recognizes that the problem in the church is the abuse of power. He argues for a sense of humanity that the hierarchy of the church seems to have lost in defending its prestige.

So much of the narrative of this story is a tale of white and black hats. Weakland’s miter is gray, and that makes him interesting. He is willing, unlike many high-ranking clerics, to reflect on his own failings and those of the church. 

4. Weakland was succeeded by Timothy Dolan, who led the church’s efforts to address the problem in the Milwaukee archdiocese. He has since emerged as the church’s leading spokesman in the United States. Dolan claims to have “cleaned up” the problems in Milwaukee. Is that a fair characterization?

No. What Dolan did was try to protect the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by taking money off its books to avoid paying abuse claims. According to an article in the New York Times, $75 million “disappeared from the church’s investments in 2005.” Then, in 2007, Dolan moved $55 million of church funds to a cemetery trust. Dolan has claimed that he did this merely to make sure that the gravestones were properly cared for. At that price, one could assign a personal valet to every stone.

In the film, we focus on the pristine headstone of Father Murphy. Even in death, he is treated better than the survivors of his abuse. 

5. Two church prelates have now faced criminal charges in the United States and been convicted and sentenced for their roles in child abuse. Do you believe that the criminal-justice system is a part of the solution to the church’s child-abuse problem?

Yes. Last year, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted of covering up sex abuse by priests in his parish. And in Kansas City, Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. Both cases are important, not only because the convicted men are prelates but because they were found guilty of covering up crimes. Now we see in Los Angeles that documents revealed through civil suits — how important these documents have been! — show that Cardinal Roger Mahony actively shielded priests accused of sex abuse. The U.S. Attorney’s office is reviewing the case to see if charges should be filed.

For many years, law enforcement in heavily Catholic cities was often complicit in cover-ups. That was certainly the case in Milwaukee. Now, law enforcement is becoming more aggressive, and it is having the effect of holding church officials to account. After all, predators consciously hide behind the walls of faith, which protect them from inquiry — particularly when their superiors fortify those walls with silence. Only criminal investigations can break them down. 

At the same time, civil suits are forcing the church to disgorge documents that reveal past and present sex abuse cover-ups. Survivors of abuse seem to be united on one issue: release the documents! If one thing could be accomplished from this global crisis, it would be to force the Vatican to open its archives on clerical sex abuse.

In our film, the example of Ireland is the most striking. For years and years, it was fair to say that the country had no real division between church and state. But now, in the wake of an impressive series of government inquiries into clerical sex abuse, we see the Irish prime minister Enda Kenny demand that the Vatican be held to account for the cover-up of the “rape and torture of children.” A statement like that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. The times they are a-changin’.

6. Pope Benedict XVI is, as you say, the man who knows better than any other the scope of the church’s problem, and yet he seems to be conflicted and incapable of dealing with it seriously. Given the awesome power he holds, why can’t he address the problem more forcefully?

Pope Benedict is a prisoner of the system over which he presides. While he has offered a muted apology to some victims, he has been unwilling to accept responsibility for the cover-up by the church hierarchy, which of course includes himself. He continues to lash out at those who want to discuss female ordination (or even female participation in the Mass) and the end of forced celibacy, claiming the infallibility of church “doctrine” without ever acknowledging the role of men in making it up. 

Like other high-ranking members of the Curia, the pope puts the reputation of the church above the safety of children. If that sounds shocking, it is. But how else to explain the fact that the Vatican won’t disgorge the sex abuse documents from its archive, which might explain the prior abuse of children and protect children in the present and future?

The case of Maciel (told in the film) is instructive. By all accounts, Cardinal Ratzinger wanted to bring Maciel to justice but was unwilling to challenge his protectors, Vatican secretary of state Angelo Sodano and Pope John Paul II. When John Paul was dying, Ratzinger commenced an investigation into Maciel’s monstrous behavior, but when he became Pope, he willingly abandoned the canonical trial to defrock Maciel. What kind of message does that send? And what kind of message did it send that the announcement of the trial’s end came from Sodano?

As Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Ratzinger was also involved in the transfer of a pedophile priest to resume pastoral duties in another parish where he subsequently abused other children. As pope, he has referred to the sex-abuse crisis as “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything.” While that comment clearly shows his disgust for clerical predators and reckons with the damage done to the reputation of the church, it also betrays the fact that his concern is primarily for the institution, not the children. It’s as if to say that the church does so much good (and we should all acknowledge that the church does help the poor and provides educational opportunities), we should not allow a momentary “eruption” to soil the essence of the church as he sees it. But if the church covers up pedophilia, what kind of church is it?

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



December 2015

Power in Paris

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bed-Rest Hoax

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Blast from the Past

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Counterparty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Free but not Redeemed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Hour of the Horse·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“After World War II, urbanization and mechanization further diminished the horses’ place in Japanese life. Today, all but one of the eight breeds—the Hokkaido horse, also known as Dosanko—are critically endangered”
Photograph by Charlotte Dumas
Getting to the End·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“That casino resorts offer a kind of virtual travel is an obvious facet of this theory, but all the glitzy bullshit — the gross architectural citation of other, actual places — is really just a lure for the virtual narrative of the gambling experience.”
Photograph by Robert Gumpert
Slender Mercies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A weight-loss show about abuse and incest and a young football coach who once attempted to hang himself? If this combination strikes you as surprising, you haven’t been watching Extreme Weight Loss.”
Illustration by Barry Falls
The Counterparty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Dayton Accords stopped the Bosnian War, but because the deal was hammered out before there was a clear military victor, it relied on a complicated patchwork of ethnically organized governments that satisfied everyone and no one.”
Photograph © Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos
The Bed-Rest Hoax·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Within five days of immobilization, the arteries narrow and stiffen, and the interior lining of the blood vessels becomes less able to flex and tighten.”
Painting by Evan Wilson.

Estimated number of calories a person consumes during Thanksgiving dinner:


The earth had become twice as dusty during the past century.

A man sued Pennsylvania state police who detained him for 29 days when they mistook his homemade soap for cocaine.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today