Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: Mea Maxima Culpa

Updated February 11th, 2013

HBO has produced some great documentaries in the past, along with some not-so-great ones. The latest--which premiered on HBO this last Monday, February 4th--definitely belongs with the former group. Entitled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the film is specifically about four deaf men from Wisconsin who attended the Saint John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee and who were presumably (I say "presumably" but there really is no doubt) molested by the priest in charge of the school, one Father Lawrence Murphy.

The case is regarded as one of the first--if not the very first--in which a priest was publicly accused of serial child molestation, of using his office to that very heinous end. Some of the men whose ordeals the documentary is built around--Terry Kouhut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski--began their pursuit of justice by simply putting flyers on car windows, essentially accusing Murphy of being a pedophile and warning the public about him. They notified the police and the local DA, as well, along with the greater Catholic Church.

But for decades nothing happened, partly because they were simply not taken seriously or believed; the accusations were--at that point in time--simply outlandish in the minds of many. Murphy died in 1998, having never been defrocked by the Church, much less charged with a crime.

Interwoven within this story is the more general one of the rise of sex-abuse scandals in the Church, from Boston to Ireland to Italy. And in delving into many of these cases--the one in Ireland, that of Father Tony Walsh, is particularly disturbing--the filmmakers learn that from the very beginning, Rome was well aware of what was happening in each case. And Rome--moreso than local Bishops--was the entity forcing a doctrine of secrecy over all such matters.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--now Pope Benedict XVI--was himself the head of the arm of the Church responsible for overseeing the sex scandals of the clergy.

Apart from the rather direct assault on a sitting Pope, the above represents something of a narrative reversal. As the scope of the scandals grew through the eighties and nineties, it was generally accepted that the extensive efforts to cover up such things and protect the accused priests--by moving them from parish to parish--were undertaken by local Church authorities, such as Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, without directives from Rome, proper. Many doubted this narrative all along it is true, but they were in the minority.

That is likely to change, for this film presents more than enough evidence to doubt that narrative, if not simply dismiss it outright.

Needless to say, the film has not been well-received in Catholic circles or in some Christian circles. There, the film is being heavily criticized for its "anti-Catholic" message, for jumping to conclusions, and for ignoring evidence that is inconsistent with the film's supposed agenda.
Witness this review at the Catholic World Report. In it, author David F. Pierre, Jr. points out that the film fails to note and fully credit some early actions by the archdiocese of Milwaukee:
As media outlets have widely reported, in 1973 victims of Father Murphy—former students of St. John’s School for the Deaf—became more vocal in their anger at the abuse committed over the years by the cleric. At least one victim actually went to the police, and other victims took their complaints to Milwaukee’s district attorney, putting a flyer directly on his car. 
A victim also filed a civil lawsuit against Murphy in 1975 (it was settled out-of-court in 1976). And according to a recent interview with Father Thomas Brundage, former judicial vicar for Milwaukee (more on him below), the archdiocese actually reported Murphy to the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office around the same time. 
But what did the police and the D.A. do? They did nothing. 
While the film certainly recounts the victims’ episode with Milwaukee police, the film ultimately gives law enforcement a pass, even though an arrest and conviction of the abusive priest would have halted his crimes against children immediately. Criminal charges against the priest would have protected the innocent. 
However, as the film unravels, the viewer sees that the ultimate aim of the film is not to tell the full story, but to lambast the Catholic Church.
But Pierre seems to not realize what he has done here. In his attempt to criticize the movie: he's actually justified the new narrative offered by the filmmakers. Because the story--as he relates it--leads to an obvious question: if--in 1975--the archdiocese knew Murphy was abusing children (which is why it reported him), why did it do nothing else? Seriously, the Church is supposed to be better than the average Joe, it has resources, power, and clout as well. Here we have this child molester, the Church reports him, the police do nothing, and that's it? At that point did the Church simply wash its hands of the matter? Because again, Murphy continued on as a priest for another twenty plus years.

Pierre's criticism actually suggests the conclusion the film proceeds to draw: the archdiocese switched from reporting on Murphy to covering up the scandal because it was told to do so.

Another review--this time from Christianity Today--is also quite unhappy with the film. David DeCerto complains about "half-truths" and "conspiracy theories," yet oddly resorts to his own half-truth to make his case. In arguing that the film is way off base in suggesting the cover-up went all the way to Rome, he says:
The truth is that the charges [against Father Murphy] were first brought to the attention of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, by Milwaukee's scandal-embroiled former Archbishop Rembert Weakland in 1996, decades after local Milwaukee law enforcement and diocesan officials already knew of the crimes and the statutes of limitations had expired under both civil and church law.
It is certainly the case that Weakland contacted Ratzinger in 1996 (note the bit of shameless smearing by DeCerto, calling Weakland "scandal-embroiled") but this does not mean Ratzinger and/or Rome were unaware of the allegations until then. In fact, it is a documented reality (noted in the film) that representatives from the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican's diplomatic missions, were present at meetings in the mid-70's involving Murphy's victims and the local archdiocese. The Papal Nuncio is no local organization; it reports directly to Rome and to the Pope, himself.

Thus, the "truth" DeCerto is presenting is a shaded one, at best. At worst, it's simply an untruth. But it is interesting how DeCerto is primarily concerned about the accusations in the movie leveled at the Papacy. I understand the idea of this being a "holy" office, of the Pope deserving respect as the head of the Catholic Church, but this does not make him or his office immune to criticism. Indeed, exactly the opposite: as God's representative, the Pope should be prepared to answer any criticism of or questions about his actions (or lack of actions).

The film paints Pope Benedict in a poor light, this is true. But that is something Benedict needs to address. Having criticism shouted down by others is no way for a man of God to act, in my opinion. And maybe--if the film gains traction--Rome will speak up, publicly and fully, about what it has done, what it has known, and what it will do in these kinds of situations for the future.

The film is a powerful one, well worth watching. Is it a perfect film? No, not by a long shot, but it is an honest presentation, far more honest than what has come from the mouths of many defenders of the faith, with regard to the sex scandals in the Church.

Cheers, all.

Update: February 11th

Today Pope Benedict XVI, née Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, announced that he would be abdicating St. Peter's Throne, making him the first Pope to resign his office in some seven hundred years. The Pope cited his rapidly deteriorating physical health as the primary reason, saying:
...both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.
Some might say his decision was both sound and wise in this respect, and even lament the fact that past Popes--like Benedict's predecessor--did not recognize the moment when they might have also stepped aside, for the benefit of the Catholic Church as a whole. And indeed, many are saying these very things, many of the faithful, many pundits and political leaders throughout the world.

But the timing is nonetheless interesting. For the HBO film--Mea Maxima Culpa--ended with a challenge to the Vatican: open the archives and let the world see what the Church knew about the myriad of abuse scandals and when the Church did, in fact, know it. Is it possible that there is a smoking gun of sorts that shows Ratzinger is far deeper involved in the decisions making surrounding those priests accused of heinous misconduct? Who knows. If there is, I guess we'll all know in the next several months.

In the meantime, if anyone doubts the reach and power of the Church, thinks that it is in recession, note the kowtowing in the media to Ratzinger, note how he is being lauded across the board, by and large. Note how suggestions of scandal as a factor are being marginalized, as in this Atlantic Wire piece that suggests any such talk is a "ridiculous conspiracy theory."

These sex-abuse scandals in the priesthood may or may not be directly responsible for Ratzinger's decision. Supposing that they are, however, is no conspiracy theory. There's a case to be made and a Vatican conspiracy of silence. We can't allow sympathy and the need to fawn override the facts. Ratzinger may be Pope, but he is still just a man. He may be old and weak, but he is still responsible for the decisions he made or failed to make. And the victims--along with the rest of us--deserve to know the truth.

Cheers, all.


  1. Thank you for your insight. I have always wondered how a loose cannon like Mark Latham was made leader and now it is explained, the old payback.
    What small minded people, hate makes of us all.
    And as for Latham, here was a man who called George W. the worst president ever ( he was right there) and then knocked people over in the stampede to shake his hand.
    Obviously a man of no substance which explains his weathervane approach to policies.
    However, as a political commentator I find Mark both refreshing and entertaining. A candid breath of fresh air who, because of his perceived ill-treatment by the ALP, is even-handed in his commentary, unlike the hacks like Kroger, Reith and Costello who just read from the prayer book and spout propoganda, thus dismissing their own credibility of argument.

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