Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God

500 Days Of Film Reviews Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God And Finds A Disturbing And Yet Also Inspiring Documentary About Child Abuse Within The Catholic Church 


It’s 1972 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and, in the first known case in the United States, victims publicly accuse a priest of child sexual abuse. 


This case would spur a worldwide investigation reaching all the way to the Vatican.



And so, with one single letter, Mea Maxima Culpa begins - telling a story of the horrific abuse of over 200 children who attended Milwaukee's St John’s School For The Deaf in the 1950s. The abuse was carried out by their most trusted guardian - Father Lawrence Murphy.

Is It Any Good?

I recently watched Spotlight in the cinema. This superb film reminded me of director Alex Gibney’s astounding documentary: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God.


The two films share a common theme: the sexual abuse of children by priests and the absolutely outrageous way that the Catholic Church mishandled the scandal and, therefore, allowed the abuse to continue throughout the world.


Mea Maxima Culpa tells an incredible story. It is, at times, a tough watch. I felt upset and angry at the thought of what these young deaf boys went through and how they were betrayed by someone they trusted. One survivor explains that, because Murphy was a priest, he just had to obey him. 


To make matters even worse, Father Murphy preyed on those deaf boys who had hearing parents that couldn’t sign. He became the boys’ only interpreter - the sole means by which they could communicate with their families. 


As a result, when the abuse started, the boys had no way to tell anyone what was happening. Honestly, it makes me want to cry just sitting here writing these words.


The documentary also examines similar cases of abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland and Italy. It highlights the awful actions of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a prominent church fundraiser and what the filmmakers describe as a “ruthless sex criminal beloved by Pope John Paul II”.



I realised two astounding things from watching Mea Maxima Culpa. First, the scandal goes far higher within the Catholic Church than I ever thought possible. 


By uncovering documents from secret Vatican archives, the film reveals that when former Pope Benedict the 16th was a Cardinal, he ordered that every sex abuse case involving a minor come through his desk.


The filmmakers emphasize that this established Cardinal Ratzinger as “the most knowledgeable person in the world regarding priestly sexual abuse of minors”.   


Second, I realised just how strong and brave human beings can be in the face of such an ordeal and such an overwhelming abuse of power.


A small group of deaf men lie at the heart of Mea Maxima Culpa. Their names are Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger and their stories are told via the voices of actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan and John Slattery.


These incredibly brave men fought for years to get the attention of the world. They were let down by society time and time again. But they did not give up.They could not  - not until the world knew about the systemic child abuse within the Catholic Church. 


And, as tough as it is to see the pain and damage etched on their faces, I am so glad that I have watched them tell their story. They are an inspiration and this is the least I can do.

Random Observations

Both Spotlight and Mea Maxima Culpa feature the research of former Benedictine Monk, Richard Sipe. We only hear Sipe via a telephone call in Spotlight. However, Sipe is seen in interviews in Mea Maxima Culpa. Sipe was a Monk and a mental health counselor for fellow Benedictine Monks for 18 years.


Sex and celibacy became central to Sipe’s research. He wanted to help the training of priests. However, his data showed that at any one time no more than 50% of American Catholic priests were practising celibacy. The breaches ranged from consensual relationships to the abuse of children.


In Mea Maxima Culpa, Sipe explains that the more he looked into this area the more discouraged he became. He later left the priesthood. Since then, he has published many books on the subject and served as a consultant and expert witness in more than 57 lawsuits. 


If you liked the documentary style of Mea Maxima Culpa, I’d recommend that you check out some other films by director, Alex Gibney.


For example, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room is a fascinating film about what went on behind Enron’s closed doors. Click here to read my review.


I would also recommend Going Clear. This is a compelling (and frankly scary) look at Scientology. Click here to read my review of Going Clear


Have you seen Mea Maxima Culpa? If you have, l would love to know what you think of this documentary.


Let me know by leaving a comment in the box below!

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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