Considering the plethora of widely reported accusations of molestation, abuse, and rape already leveled against the Catholic Church, it may seem like there's little need for a documentary enumerating further wrongs. But Alex Gibney's Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God avoids redundancy through the sheer scope of its inquiry. The film systematically traces the responsibility for the cover-up of sex crimes within the church all the way up to the last two Popes.
Gibney begins, though, in Wisconsin, at the St. John's School for the Deaf, documenting the crimes committed there by Father Lawrence Murphy. To avoid denunciations, Murphy took advantage of the students' inability to communicate with those who didn't know sign language. Their disability aside, these students nobly stand out for how, in the 1970s, they staged the first known protest against clerical sexual abuse in the United States, standing on the street handing out wanted signs with Murphy's picture on them to apprehensive townspeople. Their act of bravery is one of the film's more stirring moments precisely because it feels so small compared to the institution the students battled against.
Gibney relates both the smallest anecdotes and the most groundbreaking revelations in his usual dramatic style, relying heavily on an ominous score—this time with added choral elements—and dimly lit reenactments. A steady build-up of interviewees pushes the story further down the corridors of power until, in the doc's most serious charge, Gibney declares that, as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, oversaw and hid all the reports of abuse that came from churches around the world.
Gibney's evidence of wrongdoings within the church becomes slightly less convincing, if only slightly, as the targets become bigger and the claims are buttressed less by direct witnesses. Furthermore, after the accusations against Popes Benedict and John Paul have been laid out, Gibney remarks how the Vatican's status as a sovereign nation puts these highest culprits outside the reach of most judicial systems, at which point the audience can be forgiven for wondering what it is they should do with their fury. But Gibney leaves little doubt that the church has a lot to answer for, not just in terms of having let sex abuse happen but also for how it worked, at every level of authority, to cover up the crimes. Father Murphy was denounced several times to superiors and never punished, while the history of the Order of the Paracletes, whose job was to treat sexual offenders within the church, exemplifies the extent to which the church is willing to go in order to make this problem go away: At one point, the group suggested that the church should buy an island on which to quarantine the offending priests, though that proposal was replaced by a new policy of rehabilitation and redistribution.
Gibney works hard to give Mea Maxima Culpa some variety apart from taped interviews, but both the reenactments and the sinister score he relies on for doing so are too often superfluous and eventually become repetitive themselves; a shot of a young boy kneeling before a priest doesn't add anything that isn't all too clear already from the victims' testimonies. That said, the doc's main purpose, like Taxi to the Dark Side before it, is to present increasingly damning facts about institutional corruption. And in both cases the facts are worthy of mighty indignation. So if Mea Maxima Culpa lacks a certain cinematic depth, that doesn't take away from its admirable reporting. What clearly angers Gibney more than anything are the lies and deceptions propagated by the most powerful, and here, like in his other work, he goes after the truth with fierce tenacity.