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Ending The 'Silence' Around Priests' Sex Abuse

Nov 15, 2012

By the time Father Lawrence Murphy died in 1998, it's alleged, he had sexually abused more than 200 children. Many of them must have seemed ideal victims: Students at St. John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee between 1950 and 1974, they possessed limited ability to communicate with others. Commonly in that period, the boarding school's pupils had hearing parents who didn't know American Sign Language.

These boys, largely unable to speak, are more than metaphors for all of the voiceless children whose sexual assaults are chronicled in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. In 1972, three of them became the first known victims of a pederast priest to accuse their attacker publicly.

Mea Maxima Culpa — Latin for "through my own immense fault" — is prolific documentarian Alex Gibney's most powerful film since the Oscar-winning 2007 Taxi to the Dark Side. The movie revisits the themes (and some of the same characters) of Amy Berg's chilling 2006 chronicle Deliver Us from Evil. But it reaches further, expanding from one American diocese to Ireland, Italy, the Vatican and the career of the current pope.

The three victims, who were later joined by a fourth, tell their stories with their hands and faces; their words are enunciated in voice-over by actors Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke and John Slattery. While Gibney himself narrates, the film meshes archival stills and film with other materials, including overly ominous staged reconstructions of life at St. John's. This was a school, one student recalls, where the priest heard confession in a second-floor closet.

After graduating from St. John's, Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski couldn't exactly shout Murphy's crimes from the rooftops. But the men did do something unprecedented: They distributed flyers that accused the priest of abuse. Murphy was forced into retirement, although he was never prosecuted or publicly disciplined.

That's typical, the movie demonstrates. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and church therapist, offers the results of his studies: Only about 50 percent of American Catholic priests are actually celibate, he estimates. The unchaste ones aren't necessarily pederasts, of course, but if half the church's priests are having sex, surely someone at the Vatican would have heard about it.

That someone, as it happens, is Pope Benedict XVI. Back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which collected reports on priestly misbehavior. He probably knows more about the subject than even Jeff Anderson, the Minnesota lawyer who's come to specialize in Catholic clerics who molest children.

Gibney doesn't have time to identify many such priests, but he does briefly tell the stories of Marcial Maciel, a highly placed Mexican priest, pederast and morphine addict, and Tony Walsh, an Irish priest who became known first as an Elvis impersonator and later as a convicted sex offender.

While heavily Catholic Ireland has been rocked by recent revelations of sexually abusive priests, Italian reporter Marco Politi notes that the earliest known accounts of such crimes are 1,700 years old. It turns out that deaf children were also favored targets of predatory Italian clerics in the church's infancy.

That information brings the documentary full circle, but the fundamental thing linking all of these cases is the church's response: concern for its own reputation and not the victims. "Little boys heal," shrugs one priest, and that seems the dominant opinion within the church. (No Vatican representative consented to an interview for this movie.) Mea Maxima Culpa suggests that healing is better accomplished in sunlight than in shadow. (Recommended)

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