HBO documentary defines reasons for Catholic scandal

It would be comforting to call the horrific violations recounted in "Mea Maxima Culpa" unthinkable.

But after decades of revelations about the epidemic of sexual abuse of minors in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the ever-accompanying accounts of enabling church officials, a new documentary from Oscar winner Alex Gibney tracks the problem to its source.

"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" begins its enraging journey by introducing the crimes of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who molested hundreds of boys under his care at St. John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee.

Along with the powerlessness of his prey, the failure to act by nuns, police, other priests and more than one archbishop allowed Murphy to assault deaf youths for more than 20 years.

Four of Murphy's victims worked tirelessly to try to bring charges against him, and their testimonials provide the gripping, emotional framework of "Mea Maxima Culpa."

Because they were deaf and lived away from home, Murphy's targets were particularly vulnerable. His favorite victims were children of hearing parents who had never learned sign language.

Murphy would prowl the dormitory at night and molest boys in full view of their terrified classmates. He often incorporated abuse into confession, which he eventually moved from the traditional booth to an isolated closet.

After being ignored by Catholic police and prosecutors, some St. John's victims began posting handmade "Most Wanted" fliers around Milwaukee with Murphy's photo on them, setting in motion the events that would result in Murphy's removal from the school, 17 years after the first reports of abuse.

Eventually, Murphy was sent to a therapist, whose handwritten notes from 1993 detail nauseating crimes and justifications silently as they flash across the screen: "There was rampant homosexuality among the older boys. I fixed the problem. I thought I was taking their sins upon myself."

Murphy died in 1998. He never had a criminal, civil or canonical trial.

Even those who've kept up on the church's many scandals might be surprised by other tidbits from "Mea Maxima Culpa." That the church once put down a deposit on a Caribbean island where pedophile priests were to be quarantined. That the church has "fixers" who travel the United States with millions of dollars annually budgeted to buy the silence of families. That the church has a worldwide network of camps where problem priests receive spiritual counseling - but no psychological treatment.

But compressing the cover-up down to the actions of "the church" is too easy, and "Mea Maxima Culpa" points a steady finger of accusation straight at Pope Benedict XVI.

Beginning in 1981, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a less-catchy but more palatable name for the office once known as the Inquisition. As ordered by John Paul II, Ratzinger's CDF oversaw every sexual abuse allegation from 2001 until his rise to the papacy in 2005.

His first act in this new role was to send bishops a letter reminding them to keep allegations buried, citing canon law that forbids the public airing of misdeeds - reminiscent, the documentary suggests, of the Mafia's omerta or code of silence. When U.S. bishops begged Rome for the power to defrock repeat offenders, they were denied.

Gibney's film is by no means definitive, sticking mostly to the Murphy case and the scandals in Boston and Ireland. All requests by the filmmakers to interview Vatican officials went unanswered.

The trial of Bishop Robert Finn for failure to report abuse in Kansas City warrants two snapshots of New York Times headlines, which slide past similar stories from around the globe in a numbing montage. The film gets bogged down a few times in the minutiae of documents traveling across the Atlantic.

Yet it does an arresting job of connecting the dots that allowed those tragedies to blossom for years. It doesn't rely on salacious accounts to inspire head-shaking disgust: Those come every time another attempt at justice shatters against the Vatican's gates.

Emotional without being exploitive, "Mea Maxima Culpa" successfully joins the groundswell of exposure it chronicles. It will not be easy viewing for the faithful because it's impossible to say that America's archbishops didn't know or understand. It's impossible to believe that the Vatican, still hailing its doctrine as infallible, didn't grasp the magnitude of the problem.

No one can now pretend that the men running the world's largest Christian church don't know that they are protecting evil in their midst.

The facts presented in "Mea Maxima Culpa" make Benedict the public face of institutions that forfeit their moral imperative to protect their own. Dogged efforts to preserve the dogma of a spiritually elevated priesthood have accomplished the opposite.

"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO.


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