Left to right: A poster for the movie "Mea Maxima Culpa"; the film's writer and director, Alex Gibney; Fr. Thomas Brundage, former judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
and non-Catholic moviegoers alike should be concerned about a new film that
purports to document decades-old abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
Culpa: Silence in the House of God, created by HBO Productions, attempts to chronicle the Church’s
response to the crimes of the notorious pedophile priest Lawrence Murphy, who
is alleged to have abused dozens of innocent boys at St. John’s School for the
Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin from the 1950s to the 1970s. The episode was the
subject of a series of high-profile articles by the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein during Lent of 2010.
film also recounts the criminal episodes from a while back involving Irish
priest Tony Walsh and Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ.
the abusive crimes committed by the profiled priests were abominable. Murphy,
Walsh, and Maciel wreaked immeasurable damage to their victims and brought
tremendous shame to the Church. We always must be mindful of this.
fact, one redeeming aspect of Mea Maxima
Culpa is that the film allows the victims themselves to effectively
describe the grievous harm and criminal activity that was perpetrated upon them
and the devastating impact that the abuse had on their lives. The stories from
Murphy’s victims are at the same time stomach-turning, heart-rending, and
maddening. In this sense, the film has delivered an important service to
the film takes the unfortunate yet predictable turn in simply using the
scandals as a tool to advance a nasty anti-Catholic agenda.
media outlets have widely reported, in 1973 victims of Father Murphyformer students
of St. John’s School
for the Deafbecame
more vocal in their anger at the abuse committed over the years by the cleric.
At least one victim actually went to the police, and other victims took their
complaints to Milwaukee’s district attorney, putting a flyer directly on his
victim also filed a civil lawsuit against Murphy in 1975 (it was settled
out-of-court in 1976). And according to a recent interview with Father Thomas
Brundage, former judicial vicar for Milwaukee (more on him below), the
archdiocese actually reported Murphy to the Milwaukee County District
Attorney’s Office around the same time.
what did the police and the D.A. do? They did
the film certainly recounts the victims’ episode with Milwaukee police, the
film ultimately gives law enforcement a pass, even though an arrest and
conviction of the abusive priest would have halted his crimes against children immediately.
charges against the priest would have protected the innocent. However, as the
film unravels, the viewer sees that the ultimate aim of the film is not to tell
the full story, but to lambast the Catholic Church.
May of 1974, at the urging of victims from St. John’s, Milwaukee Archbishop
William Cousins met with Father Murphy and a number of those whom the priest
had abused. The session was reportedly quite contentious, as the meeting was
also attended by teachers at the school, who defended Murphy.
notably, the film forwards the claim that the victims “got nowhere” with the
archbishop following the gathering. It also portrays Archbishop Cousins as
being more concerned about the financial well-being of the schoolMurphy had
been quite successful as a fundraiser for the institutionthan about the abuse allegations.
a review of events suggests something entirely different: a swift and firm
response by the archdiocese to the wretched stories of abuse by Murphy. The
contentious meeting with victims took place on May 4, 1974; the May 18 issue of
the archdiocesan newspaper was already reporting that Cousins had relieved
Murphy “of all teaching and pastoral duties as they relate to the students” at
St. John’s. And by September, Murphy was gone from St. John’s completely.
other words, Archbishop Cousins’ discipline of Father Murphy was forceful and
immediate, especially by the standards of the 1970s, when the awareness of the
scourge of child abuse was not nearly as heightened as it is today. In contrast
to the claim that victims “got nowhere” with the Church, the facts reveal that
the Church actually took strong action against Murphy, although the film
certainly does not suggest this.
his removal in 1974 to his death in 1998, Murphy lived with family members in Boulder
Junction, Wisconsin, nearly 300 miles away from St. John’s. The archdiocese
gave Murphy no formal
assignments, although it appears that Murphy assisted
in some capacity at some local area parishes, which violated the
restrictions that the Church had placed on him.
Mea Maxima Culpa
nevertheless, that the Church could have done more to punish the abusive
priest. Specifically, the film laments the fact that the Catholic Church never
formally laicized Father Murphy.
the film ignores a very important aspect of the act of laicization. Had the
Church laicized the abusive priest back in 1974, or even earlier, it would no longer have had any control over
Murphy’s life activities whatsoever. With the police already having decided
not to pursue criminal charges, Murphy would have been as free as any regular
citizen to go and work wherever he pleased. The man would have been free to
prey indefinitely on unsuspecting, innocent boys.
film, blinded by its ardent efforts to attack the Church, does not address this
definitive sourceignored by the filmmakers
Thomas Brundage is the former judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
He probably knows as much about the Murphy case as anyone. From 1995 to 2003,
part of his job was interviewing Murphy’s victims as the Church worked for the
cleric’s permanent removal from ministry.
case was a tremendous tragedy,” Father Brundage said in a recent telephone
conversation. And, as he
wrote in 2010, the interviews with Murphy’s innocent victims were
were the darkest days of my own priesthood, having been ordained less than 10
years at the time,” Brundage wrote. “Grace-filled spiritual direction has been
contrary to claims in the media and in the film that the Church was indifferent
to the plight of victims, Brundage reports that the archdiocese “pushed hard”
to punish Murphy and that they had done “everything within Canon Law” to
sanction the abusive priest. Unfortunately, Murphy’s passing in 1998 meant that
he “escaped [laicization] by death.”
while the film portrays a number of deaf victims as being justifiably angry
towards the Church for its response to the Murphy case, Brundage insists that
he has been thanked by many victims for the efforts that he and others made to
hear their stories and to take action against Murphy.
knew we were sincere,” says Brundage of those victims.
did the makers of Mea Maxima Culpa
contact Father Brundage to speak with him about the Murphy case, or extend an
offer for him to provide his first-hand perspective? No, they did not. Neither
did they speak to any of Murphy’s victims who were grateful for the Church’s
an omission speaks volumes about the film’s true motivations. The producers
committed the exact same exclusions that the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein did when she reported the case in
2010. While Brundage had more intimate knowledge of the Murphy affair than
anyone other than the victims themselves, Goodstein never even bothered to
telephone Brundage until after she
had published her first attack on the Church about the episode.
the usual suspects
capitalizes on the painful episodes of abuse, portraying the Church as
insensitive, secretive, and callous to victims. In doing so, the film recruits
a number of long-time critics of the Church, some of whom have established
records of deceit and misinformation when discussing the scandals.
film interviews a number of individuals who have frequently appeared in the
media to bash the Catholic Church. Veteran Church-suing lawyer Jeff Anderson,
dissident priest Tom Doyle, former monks Patrick Wall and Richard Sipe, and
atheist author Geoffrey Robertson are just few of the subjects that the film
is also the New York Times’ Laurie
Goodstein, who has a long history of biased reporting against the Church.
the average moviegoer will have no idea of the anti-Catholic agenda that many
of these subjects harbor.
attack on Pope John Paul II
was first reported by the media in 1997 that former Legion of Christ seminarians
had accused the order’s founder Marciel Maciel of sickening sexual abuse. It is
disputable what level of knowledge Pope John Paul II had of the crimes
perpetrated by Maciel. By the late 1990s the Pontiff was in declining health
and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and it is unclear how much information
the Pope’s advisers provided him.
Maciel’s crimes and his double life inflicted unfathomable pain upon victims
and grave scandal upon the Church.
Mea Maxima Culpa cynically
manipulates this truth by smearing the late John Paul II. Recounting the appearance
of reports in the late 1990s and early 2000s about the abusive Maciel, the
narrator announces to the audience: “And even when stories in the press began
to emerge about Maciel, John Paul did not investigate it. He celebrated it.”
right. The film actually claims that the late pontiff “celebrated” the reports
that Maciel was abusing people. At the screening that this author attended, the
line actually elicited audible gasps from the audience, who genuinely believed
the film’s wild claim. “Oh, my God,” one woman responded.
Church leaders can be rightfully criticized for their responses to reports
about Maciel, the film’s claim that John Paul II “celebrated” the cleric’s
abusive ways not only crosses a line of decency, but also clearly reveals a
blatant disregard for honesty in order to advance an anti-Church agenda.
the vast media coverage that the issue has received in the past two decades,
the topic of sex abuse in the Catholic Church is certainly worthy of an honest
and compelling documentary. Sadly, Mea
Maxima Culpa does not qualify as one.
is presented in a very similar manner to the 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary Deliver Us
From Evil, which attempted to chronicle the sickening narrative
of Oliver O’Grady, the notorious serial pedophile priest who abused numerous children
in California. Unfortunately, both films are so overwhelmed by their desire to
browbeat the Catholic Church that basic facts, honesty, and perspective are
was directed by Alex Gibney, a much-heralded documentary filmmaker. Repeated
efforts were made to Gibney’s publicist to interview him about his film, but
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
has a limited
theatrical release in the coming months, and will then debut on HBO in early 2013.