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Alex Gibney On What The Pope Knew (And Why He Did Nothing) In 'Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House of God'

Sundays are a good time for soul-searching — which makes it a good time to check in with filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose chilling documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic church,  Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,  is a must-see for anyone interested in the subject as well as the larger issue of what happens when religion becomes big business.  

Gibney's documentary, which is in its second week of theatrical release and will run on HBO in February, begins with the headlines-making case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who, since the 1950s, molested as many as 200 boys at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Although the Vatican had been aware of Murphy's actions since at least the 1960s, he was never defrocked and, in fact, was allowed to remain at the school until 1974 (when he was transferred).

Mea Maxima Culpa, which translates to “My Most Grievous Fault,” takes Gibney all the way to the Vatican, and in this interview, the filmmaker talks about the surprisingly integral roles that the late Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) played in this tragic tale as well as his doubts that the church will ever openly confront this issue in a way that will bring some measure of peace to its many victims.

Movieline: After seeing Mea Maxima Culpa, I thought that it shares a theme with Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. On one level, this is about a giant corporation quashing someone those who dare to challenge its ethics.

Gibney: That's right. It's an abuse of power of sorts.

The Vatican is a corporation.

It's religion that's become a corporation and therein lays the rub. The Vatican has become too seduced by its own power and money. Vatican City is its own state.

What struck me about Mea Maxima Culpa is the arrogance that the church has shown towards those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.

For somebody like Pope Benedict, I don't think it's an arrogance born of malice. I think that the hierarchy intuits itself as a kind of holy order, which is innately better than everyone else and, therefore, can't fathom the idea of punishing one of its own. It's like ratting on a family member. If you find out a brother has committed a crime, you don't go running to the police. But once you’ve started to believe your own hype, even if it’s illogical hype, it can take you to some dark places.

And then you’re in the position of maintaining the illusion that you have done nothing wrong, which entails silencing anyone who says otherwise.

I think many of these people are true believers — even somebody as sick as Father Murphy: In those therapist’s notes he talks about why he did what he did with those children. He said, "Well, I was taking their sins upon myself."

Doesn’t he also say that he was “fixing” rampant homosexuality at the St. John’s School for the Deaf by having sex with the students there?

Right. "I was fixing it." I think rationalizations like that are made because people like Murphy believe in their essential holiness. It's not necessarily Machiavellian where they're sitting there thinking, "Okay, here's the strategy. We shall employ X, Y, or Z." Although recently, I do think there’s some of that as well. Tell me what's going on with Cardinal Dolan, for example, and his maneuvers with the cemetery fund in Milwaukee.

I wasn’t aware of that until I saw your film.

Wasn't that wild? After the deaf victims spend years trying to hold Murphy to account, imagine the vicious irony of the idea that when they petition the church for redress, the church moves its money into the cemetery account so it can continue to protect the grave of Father Murphy over and above the victims.

There’s also remarkable home-video footage you use in which a group of the deaf men confront Murphy, and his caretaker, who knows sign language, is telling one of the men that he should drop this because he’s a Catholic above all.

It's Murphy's helper. She had been a helper at the school and, yes, she's signing furiously saying you are Catholic, you are Catholic. As if to say, you know, the church is more important. You can cut this guy some slack because we don't want the enemies of the church to have access to any of this information. Put your religion ahead of your petty grievances — the fact that you and so many other children have been abused.

Petty.

Right.

There's a technical aspect of the film that I wanted to ask you about:  Your interviews with the deaf men, who are using sign language to communicate, have an almost 3D quality.

Yeah, we did something. We used a variable shutter — it’s what Spielberg used in Saving Private Ryan — so that there's a kind of flutter to the hands that makes them resonate more.

It does. I really felt the emotion and the pain behind their gestures.

We actually shot those interviews with three, sometimes four cameras because we wanted to have one camera that took a complete record of their signing, which included their facial gestures and their hands. We wanted another camera that was more impressionistic in terms of being able to move in from the face to the hands,  and so forth. We wanted a side angle, of course, and sometimes we would use a fourth camera just to get more details because we really wanted to bring that world to life for the hearing audience. There's something so rich about their language that it's very powerful to capture, particularly because their deafness was so much at the heart of this story. They were the voices that could not be heard. Yet, they made themselves heard by dint of their determination.

You also use recreations in Mea Maxima Culpa to depict aspects of the Father Murphy story. What led to your decision to take that route?

Frankly I was a little nervous about it. We shot some pretty extensive recreations on this one. I hate that word — recreation — but it just seemed that there’s something so poignant about the way Murphy entered that dorm room. I wanted to capture that hallucinatory quality, because the aspect of the story that most people found so haunting is that these children couldn’t hear him coming. That's how vulnerable they were. Like the fox in the henhouse, he had them available to him at any time.

You quote a letter from one of Murphy’s victims in which he says that he used to lay in bed shaking at night.

Yeah, because you never knew when he was going to come in and touch you or one of your friends.

In the film, you indicate that while Pope John Paul II was on his deathbed, the future Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger, who oversaw all of the sex abuse cases at the Vatican, sent his chief prosecutor to New York and Mexico City to gather evidence about alleged sexual abuses by Marcial Maciel Degollado, who ran the Legion of Christ and raised a lot of money for the Vatican.

As John Paul is dying, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees all of the sexual abuse cases, sends his chief prosecutor to New York and Mexico City to take testimony so they can build a case against Maciel. Ratzinger was legitimately furious at Maciel, but Maciel had very powerful protectors, notably John Paul and Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Ratzinger becomes Pope but Maciel was never tried under canonical law. It shows that —

Even the Pope is not all powerful.

That was a revelation to me.

That is in essence the banality of evil. Pope Benedict has to play these political games instead of assuming the mantle of God and rendering punishment to somebody. He doesn't. We don't know if some kind of deal was cut by Sodano, or if Benedict was simply doing an Obama-like thing and saying we're going to go forward, not backwards.


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