Following its theatrical run, Mea Maxima Culpa debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern. This review previously ran in The A.V. Club’s film section.
Whether or not audiences are already familiar with the Catholic Church’s mishandling of sexual-abuse cases, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God is primed to deliver a heady dose of outrage via a broad overview of systemic cover-ups tracing to the Vatican, as well as a specific and heartbreaking case in Wisconsin. The latest film from prolific Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side), Mea Maxima Culpa is not gentle about placing blame on a structure that elevates priests above the rest of mankind and prioritizes maintaining an appearance of pious perfection over addressing some grievous wrongs committed. Victims of abuse face not only an organization unwilling or unable to dispense justice, but also fellow members of the faith who are encouraged not to believe their accusations or to urge them to keep silent.
That metaphorical silence is also a literal one in the film’s central story, about a group of men who were abused as boys attending the St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. Attending the school in the ’60s, they were molested by Father Lawrence Murphy, and faced added challenges of communication that kept them isolated from anyone who could help them. As college students, they took up the fight to reveal the truth about Murphy, going to the police, the church, and the district attorney, and putting up flyers when no one would take their side. The men tell their story in sign, with the likes of Ethan Hawke, John Slattery, and other actors voicing their words, a clever choice that allows the viewer to focus on the anguished emotion on their faces rather than on subtitles.
Gibney’s choice to use the occasional stylized reenactment of memories from the confessional or the boys’ dorm at night works less smoothly, the dramatic effect coming across needlessly showy and sometimes more America’s Most Wanted than The Thin Blue Line. But the anger at the heart of the St. John’s case, and the way its perpetrator was protected by the church and the community, easily carries the film through its larger examination of the Vatican’s denials and shifting of blame about similar reports, of which it clearly had prior knowledge. Mea Maxima Culpa would make a damning, depressing double feature with The Invisible War from earlier this year—two docs that demonstrate how power protects itself and how a system like that can not only enable but encourage abuse.