Quality timing. The week Pope Benedict XVI hangs up his decorated robe, along comes a film suggesting it was his holiness himself who should have been hung. Considering the Catholic Church is the oldest institution in Western society, with more than a billion disciples binded by their faith in Jesus Christ and loyal obedience to the papacy, I’d have expected this film to be of huge interest to a great many people. Surprise then that the viewing I recently went to at the Cameo in Edinburgh was its one and only showing at the cinema, and to a half empty one at that. This film is like the Holy Ghost itself – it’s difficult to see.
Mea Maxima Culpa is Alex Gibney’s attempt to take on the world’s biggest and most untouchable organisation. To most, The Vatican is seen as purer than pure, whiter than white as the Catholic Church places huge emphasis on moral law. Yet this painstakingly and brilliantly researched documentary unveils rampant clerical paedophilia. If that is not bad enough, the abundance of damning evidence showing the Catholic Church’s systematic covering up and denial of any wrong doing is constantly shocking.
The film’s starting point and main focus is the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, a serial abuser at a school for deaf children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four of his victims, now adults, are shown describing their horrific ordeals through sign language, with voiceovers used to perfectly dramatic effect. The detail in their accounts is shocking, ensuring the words alone are all that are required; there is no need here for an exaggeration of the facts or unnecessary voyeurism. Murphy’s claim when finally pressed for explanation was that it was for the benefit of his boys: “There was rampant homosexuality among the boys at that school. And I took their sins upon myself.”
Throughout the film there are numerous testimonials from all manner of church ‘hierarchy’; bishops, priests and pastors along with hugely credible religious commentators. All of whom proceed to compile such a mountain of damning evidence that you are left with no doubt whatsoever that, rather than there being a small number of paedophiles within the Catholic Church, it is indeed a “a system which cultivates and protects sexual abusers”. Bearing in mind the Catholic Church only ordains celibate men to the priesthood, (since Jesus was, apparently, celibate) this, to put it mildly, casts a shadow as dark as hell on the Catholic’s moral stance.
Now of course many will rightly say that there are molesters and paedophiles in every walk of life. This is true. But to quote Stephen Fry when debating in 2009 on whether the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world – “Then what are you for?” I would not expect bankers, politicians, journalists or footballers to adhere to a strict code of sexual conduct. But priests, who in the case of Father Murphy are, by their title and standing within the Church, role models and father figures to the children placed in their charge, are disturbingly exposed for a history of misusing their positions of sacred trust to a horrific extent.
For over 10 years, Pope Benedict XVI in his previous position as a cardinal heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is shown to be the information hub for all cases of child abuse within the Catholic Church. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he stands accused of hearing evil, seeing evil, but saying nothing. Towards the end of his reign, when the evidence could no longer be brushed aside his concern was clearly not for the children involved, instead the fate of the priests and molesters and the noble reputation of the church. Even crowd favourite John-Paul II himself displayed complete ignorance to a rampant child-molesting Father during his time as Pope. Significantly the Father in question was a champion fundraiser for the Church. Some things are clearly more important. Money matters.
Mea Maxima Culpa finishes by going some way to explaining how, to a very large extent, the Vatican is indeed untouchable. See, the Catholic Church has a divine right to diplomatic immunity. Why? In 1929 under the provisions of the Lateran Pacts none other than Benito Mussolini granted the Vatican City national status, meaning Pope Benedict XVI will be immune from prosecution even if he steps across the border into Italy. Since Benedict’s resignation, rumours have circulated about him meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano “begging for immunity” amid further rumours of a warrant for his arrest. However, as with the case of Father Lawrence Murphy I am certain that safe within the warm bosom of the Vatican City, Benedict will live out his years a safe and free man.
We learn too that the Catholic Church paid a rather large and tidy sum for a remote Caribbean island; a kind of bolt-hole to be used for the safety or correction (you decide which) of paedophile priests. With the estimated figure of legal damages the Vatican has had to pay now running at $2bn, this may be seen as a financially prudent move. It may also be seen as an admission of guilt. As yet, the island is not theirs unlike the vast number of psychiatric treatment facilities run by the church for the orgy of paedophile or homosexual priests. The subject of homosexuality is dealt with sparingly, but in the case of Archbishop Weakland his character and testimony are highlights of the film.
Archbishop Weakland was Archbishop of Milwaukee from 1977 to 2002. Prior to that he was Abbot Primate of the Benedictine Order and was seen to champion social justice and women’s rights within the church. Initially however he was part of the church system, denying fault and part of the cog that hid and dealt secretly with abusive priests. He was also involved in a scandal involving a $450,000 payment made by the church to blackmail his male lover. The film shows him now as an openly gay man who admits to his and the church’s wrongdoings. He is shown as being strongly in support of the four deaf men who sought justice, albeit in vain, for the actions of Father Murphy. At one point, when asked whether priestly paedophilia is a form of homicide as it takes away a child’s innocence, he replies: “If you had asked me that in 1979 I would not have agreed with it. If you ask me that now in 2008 I would say in almost every case, yes.”
In an excellent summarisation he went on to say: “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.”
The deep-rooted flaw within the Catholic Church is the systematic and ongoing abuse of power. I am a man of no religious faith, yet if ever there was a piece of film that would truly test the faith of the Catholic Church’s one billion disciples, then it is Mea Maxima Culpa. If paedophilia isn’t shocking enough, paedophilia being historically denied and covered up within a church that is based on its purity and sexual morality, most definitely is.