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DocGeeks » Reviews » Mea Maxima Culpa documentary exposes ‘church omertà’

Mea Maxima Culpa documentary exposes ‘church omertà’

It couldn’t have been released at a better time, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, director Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, which 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. Instead, a strict code of silence is shown to be riddled throughout the church, taking on extremes of what can be called an inhumane proportion.

Gibney begins his expose with the case of the Milwaukee-based Father Lawrence Murphy, who worked at St. Johns School for the deaf. During his time there, he allegedly molested hundreds of male students.

As if this deed alone was not hellish enough, Murphy liked to single out those who had hearing parents who couldn’t sign – it was in this way that he could take full advantage of the already painful fact that these students could not communicate about it with those who truly loved them. This way, the only voice these students could hear -the voice of god – went silent too.

In the film, some of the shocking abuse scenes are dramatically re-enacted, these are enhancing the narrative without being tasteless. But you could argue that the story is so shocking and powerful by itself that these scenes weren’t 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.

Footage from one of the boys’ Super 8 cameras is also being used and serves the documentary well. It was shot the day that Father Murphy left the school after complaints were first made. Knowing the background it is a dramatic event, but the down to earth way in which the events unfold highlights how little truly was known at the time – and as a result was allowed to happen.

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 now outgoing Pope Benedict XVI is shown to know about child sex abuse in the church reveals a level of corruption that is almost incomprehensible and is utterly disgusting.

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 with us; the listening audience. As those in power remain silent we might be their only hope.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is currently screening in selected UK cinemas.

The documentary will also be shown as part of the Between the Lines festival at the Rich Mix cinema, Bethnal Green, London on Saturday 2 March.


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Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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