Breaking silence: Alex Gibney on Mea Maxima Culpa

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney discusses his new film investigation into cases of sexual abuse at a Catholic school in Wisconsin.

Paul O’Callaghan

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney

Having tackled corporate corruption in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), and US torture policy in Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Oscar-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney has turned his attention to the incendiary issue of child abuse in the Catholic church.

His devastating new film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is structured around the accounts of several former pupils of St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Each of the narrators was repeatedly molested by Father Lawrence Murphy, who worked at the school between 1950 and 1974. Gibney first and foremost pays tribute to the victims, who became the first people in the US to publicly speak out against clerical sexual abuse. The director then sets out to discover exactly how Murphy got away with abusing around 200 boys over a 25-year period, without any formal intervention by the church. His investigations ultimately point towards a wilful cover-up sanctioned by the Vatican.

What has been the church’s response to the film?

Absolute silence from the Vatican! When we premiered the film in Milwaukee, we did get a response from the local archdiocese and their view was that this is an old story – it’s like removing a scab from a wound, and probably does more harm to the victims than good. I of course do not agree but I found that very typical of the church, the idea that “we know about this stuff, but it’s all fixed now, let’s move on”.
Did you have a practising Catholic audience in mind as you were constructing the film, and did that influence your approach?

It did to some extent. I was raised Catholic, and I didn’t want this to be an attack on a religion. I wanted this to be a crime film, to say to Catholics and non-Catholics alike that this is a crime, and that something needs to be done about it.

What drew you to this particular case?

Partly the opportunity to connect a very intimate story with a panoramic story – to follow a crime from the moment of its commission all the way to its subsequent cover-up. Also the fact that at the heart of it was this deaf community, which was poignant both because they were so vulnerable, but also because they fought back. It means that this is not just a story of victims, where we wring our hands at the end and say “oh God, what do we do now?” The story shows that something can be done.

How did the victims feel about you wanting to tell their story?

Despite what the Church in Milwaukee said, rather than it being akin to removing a scab, this process of speaking out was a valuable form of healing for these guys. Many of them were wounded precisely because they couldn’t speak out. What was burning them up inside was the idea that they had to keep this hidden.

One thing that didn’t go down so well was that I asked the survivors what they loved about the school. Initially they didn’t want to talk about that. But I thought it was very important to start the film with a sense of innocence. Unless you feel that innocence you can’t really feel the violation.

Could you talk about the way in which you film your deaf contributors?

I was very concerned about how to shoot them in a way that was reverent to them and their language, while keeping in mind that most people who see the film will be hearing people. We decided to attach microphones to them, which they were initially astonished by! We felt that it was important to convey the difficulty that deaf people have when communicating with the hearing, by emphasising the sounds of their hands, and the vocal sounds that they would make.

Why did you decide to include re-enactments of the crimes?

Certain images kept coming up over and over for these guys, it was almost like a collective unconscious. They had very vivid memories that were recalled as one would recall a scene from a horror film. So I filmed them in that style. Most of them revolved around the dormitory – the idea of this man creeping in at night whom you couldn’t hear coming. I also felt it was important to show the confessional, and that relationship between the priest and the confessor. It’s a ritual that has an incredibly intimate and almost sexual aspect to it.

With such emotive subject matter, did you have to take any special measures to remain level-headed and objective?

The hard thing was to remember that the situation wasn’t entirely simple and clear-cut. We talked for a long time about whether to include a comment one of the guys makes about how, when all the boys were invited to Murphy’s cabin, they would all look at this kid Joe and say “he should sleep with Murphy”. It’s pretty grim – they were putting him on the spot because he was weak. It’s not a heroic moment, but it’s ultimately understandable given the circumstances.

Likewise, I think that lurking in the back of this film is this haunting sense of parents failing their children. So many of the parents in Milwaukee didn’t sign, and so couldn’t communicate with their own children. And you can understand how priests were able to advantage of that. I wanted to ensure that this wasn’t simply a story of good boys versus bad priests. Human interactions are much more complicated than that.

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