Sex, Lies, and HBO Documentaries

Mea Maxima Culpa is long on vitriol, short on facts

Catholic and non-Catholic moviegoers alike should be concerned about a new film that purports to document decades-old abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Mea Maxima 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.

The 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.

Indeed, 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.

In 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 viewers.

The agenda creeps in

However, the film takes the unfortunate yet predictable turn in simply using the scandals as a tool to advance a nasty anti-Catholic agenda.

As media outlets have widely reported, in 1973 victims of Father Murphy—former students of St. John’s School for the Deaf—became 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 car.

A 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. 

But what did the police and the D.A. do? They did nothing.

While 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.

Criminal 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.

Swift action taken

In 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.

Very 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 school—Murphy had been quite successful as a fundraiser for the institution—than about the abuse allegations.

However, 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.

In 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.

Following 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 argues, 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.

However, 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.

The film, blinded by its ardent efforts to attack the Church, does not address this glaring difficulty.

The definitive source—ignored by the filmmakers 

Father 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.

“The 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 “gut-wrenching.”

“These 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 a Godsend.”

But 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.”

And 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.

“They knew we were sincere,” says Brundage of those victims.

But 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 efforts.

Such 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.      

Bringing in the usual suspects

Mea Maxima Culpa 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.

The 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 profiles.

There is also the New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein, who has a long history of biased reporting against the Church.

Meanwhile, the average moviegoer will have no idea of the anti-Catholic agenda that many of these subjects harbor.

A vicious attack on Pope John Paul II

It 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.

Indeed, Maciel’s crimes and his double life inflicted unfathomable pain upon victims and grave scandal upon the Church.

However, 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.

That’s 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.

While 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.

A missed opportunity

Considering 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.

Mea Maxima Culpa 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 dismissed.

Mea Maxima Culpa 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 were unsuccessful.

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.

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About David F. Pierre, Jr. 14 Articles
David F. Pierre, Jr. is creator and author of and has written two books: Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Fraud, The Stories and Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church. He is a graduate of Boston College and lives with his wife and family in Massachusetts.