Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney talks the Catholic sex scandals
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Alex Gibney’s documentaries often focus on the inherent corruption of impersonal bureaucracies, be they corporate, political, or religious in nature. In his breakthrough film, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, he delved into the collapse of the corporate behemoth. In his Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side, he looked at the U.S. government’s torture and detainment programs in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In his latest, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, he examines the Catholic Church child-abuse scandals, in which pedophile priests molested children, and the church did nothing to stop it. Gibney’s gift is for finding a way into a story that can seem big and impersonal via smaller, personal stories, and in Mea Maxima Culpa, he approaches the story of the scandal through four deaf men from Wisconsin, whose efforts to bring to justice the priest who had molested them as boys were instrumental in eventually uncovering what had been done to other children just like them. The riveting documentary played for a very short while in theaters last year, but makes its television debut this month on HBO. Gibney sat down with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association winter press tour to discuss why he’s drawn to themes of institutional corruption, what justice for those abused by priests might look like, and the status of his film about Lance Armstrong.
The A.V. Club: You seem to be good at putting a human face on these huge, systemic tragedies. How do you go about finding those stories within the larger story?
Alex Gibney: Honestly, it’s looking for good stories and looking for good characters. In an odd way, it’s not unlike doing a dramatic film. You’re looking for story, and you’re looking for character. And at the end of the day, particularly in the cutting room, if the story isn’t working, then something is wrong. As powerful and as august and magisterial as the grand themes are, the story has got to work, or else the film isn’t going to work.
AVC: In this case, did you find the smaller story about these four guys first, or did you set out wanting to make a film about this particular issue?
AG: It all happened at the same time. I read the piece that Laurie Goodstein wrote in the New York Times, which was prominently displayed. It was A1 above the fold. I grew up Catholic, so I paid great attention to this subject. I wasn’t sure there was anything I could add. When I saw this piece, I thought, “Wow, there’s something here that I really can add.”
One was the fact that we had underappreciated the heroes in this story, and these guys were heroes. And two was that Laurie’s piece put it all together. She showed how this story in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, connects to the Vatican. That this global cover-up is actually being administered by the Vatican. It’s not a few bad apples. It was the rotten barrel.
AVC: You seem to enjoy shooting the visual language of American Sign Language. How did you approach the question of shooting that?
AG: We did a lot of tests, actually, because I wasn’t sure exactly how to do it, testing different lighting schemes. There’s one lighting scheme that’s only seen briefly in the film—I wish it could have worked better—where we lit from above. That flagged the light off the face, so the only time you see light is when the person signs, because the light bounces off the hands, and it has an eerie, below-the-face glow. But we did other things and ultimately decided to shoot these guys with four cameras, and the A camera, which was kind of a medium-close shot. We used a variable shutter, so there’s more of a flutter to the hands as they pass through the frame. And all those things work very powerfully to give you an emotional sense of the signing. Initially, some of the interpreters said, “Oh no, you can only do it one way,” which is to have a very big frame so you can always see everything. I just felt that that wasn’t… We were trying to be as faithful as we could in terms of getting the sign language right, but for the hearing audience, it wouldn’t be as powerful [unless] we went for the emotional resonance. Ultimately, that’s what we did.
One other thing that was kind of bizarre for them, meaning the subjects, we mic’d them very closely. And they were like, “Why are you mic’ing us? We’re deaf. We don’t speak.” But to a hearing audience, part of this story was the struggle for them to communicate. So to hear the grunts, the clapping of the hands, the exhaling of breath, all that meant something, because it represented their struggle, I think. So it was a very important part; the sound was actually quite important.
AVC: One of the first things we see is one of the guys signing. We don’t actually hear anything—
AVC: —for a good long while. And silence, both literal and metaphorical on the part of the church, is so important to this film. What did you want to say with that early moment?
AG: [Executive producer] Sheila Nevins actually made an excellent comment when we were making the film. She wanted us to experience that world as a very different world, and we weren’t sure exactly how to accomplish it. We were going back and forth about the best way, and then Sloane Klevin, the brilliant editor I worked with on this, had an idea that maybe we just do the first interview that way, where we don’t translate it, at least not right away. We do translate it [eventually], but where you see the person signing, very expressive, you don’t know what he’s saying, yet that confronts right away this idea of a difference and that idea of a whole different language that you’re going to have to become a part of. So it wasn’t easy at first, but it was something so fresh and intriguing. “What was he saying?” You’re asking the question right away. “What did he say?” So that, I think, was terribly important. The first time we see him, you don’t hear anything except the sounds he’s making with his hands.
AVC: You seem drawn to these stories of systemic corruption in institutions. What about that theme appeals to you as a documentary maker?
AG: I’m not sure why, but I seem to be drawn to stories about abuses of power. But I’m also drawn, not so much to victims’ stories, as stories that tend to show how power works. Because if you don’t understand the criminals, you can’t figure out how to stop the crimes. Now obviously, there are victims at the heart of this story, but they’re not pure victims, in the sense that I don’t like to make films that are just hand-wringing films, where you get to the end, and you feel, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” What appealed to me about this was that these guys were heroes. They made a difference. And you understand from the inside out how the mechanism of power works and how those in power abuse that power.
Though, I do seem to be drawn to that. It’s an animator for me. It pissed me off. When I read that piece in The New York Times, it just pissed me off. The idea that a guy can abuse 200 deaf children, and the institution that’s responsible for that person doesn’t bring him to justice. They try to cover it up.
AVC: With some of the other institutions you’ve made films about—like Enron or the United States’ torture and detainment program—there were whistleblowers fairly early on in the grand scheme of things. But here there were instances of it dating back to the 19th century and few whistleblowers. Why did it take so long for this to come to light?
AG: I think for a long time, there was no willingness to question the institution. We lived in a society that also wasn’t that interested in questioning authority. The John Jay [College of Criminal Justice] did a report at the request of the Catholic Church that kind of concluded that the sex-abuse crisis was really a crisis of the ’60s, that that’s when the morals were too loose and suddenly all these people started misbehaving. I think that’s bullshit. What I do agree with is that there’s something about the ’60s and early ’70s, that culture of protest and that therapeutic culture, in combination, allowed people to talk about this stuff in a way that they’d always kept hidden before. And to protest. And to not regard as sacrosanct these powerful institutions. That did change. And when that change happened Terry [Kohut]—well, not Terry yet. Terry came later. Bob [Bolger], Arthur [Budzinksi], Gary [Smith], they started raising their voices, as it happens smoking dope with each other after they had all gone to college, but they raised their voices in a way that was consistent with the spirit of protest at the time. Suddenly, it was like, “Man, fuck this. We’re going to make a difference now. We’re not going to take this lying down.”
AVC: In the film, there’s a lot of talk about justice. Do you have a sense of what justice would look like for the victims?
AG: You’d have to ask the survivors, but I think justice for them would be some punishment for the criminals and, frankly, a sense that the church, in some way, acknowledged their crime. So far, the church has apologized for a few pedophile priests. The church has never acknowledged the crime of cover-up that it itself has committed. I think the way they could do that would be disgorge the documents that they have. Say, “You know what? We committed a terrible sin, and in order to expiate our guilt over that sin and to show how much we care about the victims, we’re now going to disgorge these documents, which will not only show you priests who may be at large, but also show how we covered it up over time.” That would be justice.
AVC: Did you get a sense as you were making this of how those whose lives were shattered by this, or who worked within the church to stop it, saw their own faiths evolve?
AG: It really differs widely from person to person. Some people lose their faith in God. Some people, I think, find a way of separating the institution from the belief. Because the institution, I think, has become corrupted. Particularly the hierarchy of the institution. There are a lot of good priests around who are not only doing very important things, in terms of improving the world, but also have a sense of faith and religion that I think people find a lot of comfort in. But understanding how to separate that from the cruelty that the hierarchy has permitted, that’s a trick. Because for a long time the church said, “No, no, no. We can’t punish anybody because then scandal will result, and it will undo all the good that the church does,” and that’s something that you often hear from institutions. It’s like Penn State [and the Jerry Sandusky scandals]. As we now know, people very high up at Penn State were saying, “We can’t really let this out because it’ll throw a shadow over this terribly important institution of football that has so much benefit,” and in the meantime, they were permitting victims to be victimized.
AVC: Where do you think that inclination to protect the institution over the individual arises from?
AG: I think it comes from a sense of identity. People identify with an institution. And most people want to think that they’re doing good, so they assume the institution is doing good and therefore can’t do wrong. And then when crimes are committed, it’s like a cognitive dissonance. “How can that possibly happen?” What they do is they redefine the crime. “Well, the crime’s not so bad.” Or, “I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for the crime.” Or, “We mustn’t pay too much attention to the crime, because then all the good the institution does…” In the film, we name it. We call it noble-cause corruption. The idea that a sense of inherent goodness blinds you to the crimes you could possibly commit. Until people learn to separate those two, to say just because there’s an institution dedicated to good doesn’t mean it can’t be bad.
AVC: You talk a lot about the history of the church hiding these crimes in the film. There are some strange ideas, like buying an island to confine pedophile priests to. What are some things that really shocked you in the process of your research?
AG: You named it. One of the big ones was discovering they had actually bought an island in the Caribbean, Carriacou, just off the coast of Grenada, to house pedophile priests. Imagine that: Pedophile Island. That was staggering to me. So they knew they had a big problem. So big that they needed to buy an island to house all these people. That and the fact that some of the archives we uncovered were truly jaw-dropping. There’s a moment in the film that takes the breath away from most people, which is an Archbishop of Dublin, Desmond Connell, just being asked by an interviewer, a guy named Nick Pellow, “Why didn’t you speak up? Why didn’t you tell the victims what was going on so they could go to the police to protect themselves?” And he says, [Irish accent] “I suppose I should have, but I had so much to do.” Like what did he have to do that was more important than protecting the lives of children? Arrange for decorations on the big Christmas tree? It was that kind of appalling lack of moral vision that really was stunning to me. That was really a shocker.
AVC: So many of these crimes seem to be tied to the idea of the perfect, celibate, above-it-all priest. Do you think it’s time for that policy of celibacy to go?
AG: Well, it’s not what I think. The idea of forced celibacy to me is ridiculous. But at the end of the day, it’s not my business. The Catholic Church can do what it wants. I think that forced celibacy will continue to result in more hypocrisy and more secrecy. And secrecy and hypocrisy are the handmaidens of corruption. So yeah, I think they need to fix it, but if they’re not going to fix it, then they have to focus on the crimes. Or we have to focus on the crimes and begin to hold people accountable.
But yeah, celibacy is a key problem for the Catholic Church, not because some people can’t do it. [Sociologist and former Benedictine monk] Richard Sipe was telling me that, with great difficulty, about 10 percent of priests can be celibate successfully. Ten percent. What’s happening to the other 90 percent? They’re not successful. Which means they either have an active sex life or, Richard Sipe himself told me, he was considering suicide because these urges were so powerful, but he couldn’t act on them in any way, shape, or form, so he wanted to kill himself. Finally, he chose sex instead of suicide. Jesus Christ never preached there should be celibate priests. The only reason the church has this is because it’s a mechanism of power and control. You can control priests who are celibate. They don’t have families. And when you control their sexuality, you control their lives. That’s what they want. It’s appalling that it remains. But for those of us, there are some who say, “Well, the church can do what it wants within its own walls.” Fine. But then we have to focus on the crimes that they’re committing and hold them accountable for those crimes.
AVC: You’ve been working on a film about Lance Armstrong for a while. How is that progressing, and has it changed at all in light of recent news?
AG: Yes, it’s changed. [Laughs.] Though even in the original formulation, there was a lot of discussion about doping. But it’s certainly changed. We’re still doing more interviews, and we’re re-editing. So I would expect it will be finished sometime this spring.