Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa is one of the most revealing, shattering and important documentaries of the last decade; detailing the sex scandal, which eventually became the Lawrence Murphy case, one of the biggest and most detrimental cases ever bought against Catholicism. The story in Gibney’s documentary reveals the details of sexual abuse, child molestation, betrayal and lies in the Catholic Church all the way from the incidences in schools and churches around the world, to the biggest cover up by the Vatican. The audience is presented in detail, through the stories of four deaf men who were exposed to and abused by Father Lawrence Murphy in the 1960s whilst he was the head of St Johns School for the Deaf.
Through the case in which they present, Gibney is given the opportunity to follow the cover up that comes from the school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with Murphy’s case all the way to the serial abuser, Tony Walsh otherwise known as the ‘Singing Priest’ for this Elvis impression who spent years in Ireland’s churches abusing both boys and girls. The film also details and explains that these nightmares weren’t just localised to specific areas but in fact all the way to the highest offices of the Vatican, where it is even considered the Pope help to avoid these stories getting out.
Gibney has very cleverly used voices of huge stars as the four deaf men in the film; Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke & John Slattery give their voices to those who have been keeping their stories for these years and are finally being given the opportunity to explain what it was really like growing up under the abuse of those in their Church. The four men who are telling their stories in the film are so vivid, expressive and coherent in their sign language that it really adds to the value of the film for the audience. Whilst Gibney could have simply opted (presumably a much cheaper option) for subtitling the film, he instead opts to use these voices that are so intense and interesting because they truly tug on the heartstrings of the audience and perhaps even allow the audience an entry into the story. Whilst the voices may not be instantly recognisable, there is certainly a twinge of recognition when you watch the film and this brings the audience into the story, really calling on their empathy for what they are being told.
As a filmmaker, Gibney has practically created a perfect documentary because he mixes the concept of talking heads with archive footage and photographs as well as his narration and voice over keeping the audience on track for the entire film. The other wonderful technique he uses in Mea Maxima Culpa is that of chapters in the film, which very clearly mark a change of direction to the story he is telling. As the film goes on, he is giving the audience the feeling of growing tensions within the Catholic Church and at the Vatican. Initially the film tells the story of Murphy and what was happening at the school over years, detailing the horrifying stories of Murphy’s manipulation and grooming of the children and the ways in which he consoled parents and gained their trust because he could communicate with the deaf children. But as the film goes on, the interviewees start to talk about other cases and Gibney explores these further, illuminating the connections between them. But he uses the Murphy story as an anchor for the entire film, constantly referencing and returning back to what happened to these children and what they were doing as adults, which almost provides the audience with constant frame of reference in a film, which could have become quickly muddled by trying to deal with too much.
Ironically, the film hints at but does not deal with several other issues surrounding this crisis including the rules around celibacy in the Priesthood where he could have considered the origins of this rule and what the physical and psychological implications of it is upon those who take the vow. Furthermore, there are wider topics of conversation, which are constantly battled out between those in Catholic Church and those outside of it, including the rules around birth control and homosexuality. Whilst the film does lightly consider these, there was so much more research it could have done. This is by no means a negative to this documentary but it does ask these questions to the audience and I am sure there are many people who would be interested in looking into this further.
The film is shocking and is not an easy watch but by the end of Mea Maxima Culpa you feel as if you have gained an intense knowledge and insight into something so wildly current and dangerous but really is often ignored or covered up. It is so interesting to acknowledge the efforts of these men in bringing Murphy to justice and during one of the final sequences when some of them visit the much older Murphy’s retirement house years after the events, the audience are brought to the edge of their seats to see how the revelations are going to unfold and whether these men really can get closure for the torture and torment that they have be through in their lives.
Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa truly is a brilliantly researched, intensely dark tale that should have been told years ago but due to cover ups by the Vatican, it has rarely been discussed and seen the light of day. He is also very careful in the film not to directly blame religion for this and is able to avoid making any sweeping statements about faith, instead facing clear facts and then presenting them to the audience. The film really does tell a story, which keeps the audience hooked throughout this powerful and challenging documentary.