Dir. Alex Gibney
(2012, Not Rated, 106 minutes)

The child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has been well documented, though not discussed thoroughly enough in the years since the story exploded in the early 2000s, which is why Mea Maxima Culpa is still such a punch to the gut. The evidence is so clear: the Catholic leadership, to protect the reputation of the institution, sided with child rapists over their victims.

The film wisely begins on a small scale and then expands its focus to the global church hierarchy. We’re introduced to the former students at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, who were molested en masse by Father Lawrence Murphy. Their accounts are heartbreaking, the emotions still fresh and unresolved. Through them, the film gives us a deeply personal perspective of the abuse, which makes the progressively expanding picture of the international coverup all the more devastating; we observe how the victims are betrayed, often to their faces, by an institution that claims divine moral authority.

The film is directed by Alex Gibney, the director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which have also detailed the misconduct of powerful institutions. But the actions of the church in one way are worse, because the cloak of religion shields them against the consequences of their actions.

The recent Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State involved the silence of witnesses to his crimes and resulted in the disgrace of revered coach Joe Paterno, but the Catholic Church, which has been aware of pedophiles in the priesthood for much longer than the general public – decades, centuries even – has far more sophisticated systems in place for insulating itself from responsibility. It’s a tragic irony: because they’re men of God, they’re not held accountable for their sins.

 

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