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IDFA Review: Mea Maxima Culpa – Silence in the House of God

In his latest documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Oscar winning director Alex Gibney delves into the horrific scandal of child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

Mea Maxima Culpa translates from Latin as ’my most grievous fault’, however, there is little acceptance of fault by the perpetrators in this film, and a strict code of silence is shown to be riddled throughout the church.

The film was the winner of The Grierson award for best documentary at this year’s London Film Festival and not without good reason.

Gibney begins his film with the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who worked at St. Johns School for the deaf in Milwaukee. During his time there, he allegedly molested hundreds of male students and particularly singled out those who had hearing parents who couldn’t sign. It was in this way that he could take full advantage of the students not being able to communicate with their families properly; here was a clear case of abuse of power of the worst possible sort.

Some of the shocking abuse scenes are dramatically re-enacted, these are enhancing the narrative though the story is so shocking and powerful that is it definitely not a necessity. However, Gibney thought it crucial to show how the deaf boys used the confession box and how it was possible for those in power to abuse them in a place that should be the most sacred of all.

The footage that was recorded from one of the boys’ Super 8 cameras depicts Father Murphy leaving the school, it is a dramatic event and serves the documentary well, highlighting how little was known at the time of why he was leaving the school and how a wall of silence had already been built.

At first, by concentrating on just one specific case, Gibney is able to show the audience, in depth, the personal damage the abuse has left. He then looks at the problems on a larger scale and considers the wider abuse, including the explosion of cases worldwide, how far up in the Vatican the knowledge of abuse goes, along with the forced silence on the issue. The horror of just how much the current Pope (Benedict XVI) knows about child sex abuse in the church reveals a level of corruption that is almost incomprehensible.

The young boys from the St. John’s School are now men and they tell their stories by way of signing. Their expressive movements and facial expressions create incredibly honest interviews in which they hauntingly share the many horrors that they had to endure.

The extent of abuse is highlighted by the number of cases that began to come to light, not just in the US but also throughout Europe. The amount of evidence and range of testaments clearly show just how much research went into the film. Without this depth of information the film could easily have turned into a sensationalist portrayal of the scandal that is nothing more than a shock tactic.

Instead, Mea Maxima Culpa offers a stark look behind the clear culture of silencing the victims. Expect shocking revelations, heart breaking tales, and palpable exasperation at the actions of the church and the culture of silence that is so prevalent.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God will be screening at IDFA at the following locations and times:

Fri 16-11     23:00     Tuschinski 2

Sat 17-11     23:00     Munt 09

Thu 22-11     17:15     Tuschinski 2

Sat 24-11     10:15     Munt 09

For more information and to book tickets visit the IDFA website.


Written by

Nicola graduated from Brunel University with a BSc in Sociology and Media and is now currently studying for a MSc at LSE in Society and Culture, while working in the UK film industry. The Up Series (beginning with 7up) sparked her interest in documentaries, particularly those with a social and cultural themes. She is enthusiastic about documentaries because of their capacity to inform and incite change, as seen from The Thin Blue Line and, more recently, Josh Fox’s Gasland.

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