A response to Alex Gibney about “Mea Maxima Culpa”

I want to thank Alex Gibney for taking the time to reply to my analysis of his new documentary film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Any good and honest writer appreciates constructive feedback, as it certainly can be applied to the never-ending desire to grow in one’s craft.

Unfortunately, I found Gibney’s reply to my article neither helpful nor forthcoming, as the director trots out yet another parade of red herrings and half-truths.

In responding to Mr. Gibney, I would also like to add that my article for CWR barely scratches the surface of the volumes that can be said about his new film.

Mea Maxima Culpa is an anti-Catholic broadside masquerading as a documentary. Not including the victims who are profiled, Gibney has assembled one of the largest collections of reckless malcontents and Church bashers ever gathered in one film. Gibney’s project is mean-spirited in tone and approach, and the director’s agitated reply to my article only reinforces this.

1. First and foremost, I want to address his attack against Fr. Thomas Brundage, the judicial vicar of Milwaukee from 1995 to 2003, who has spoken poignantly of his work with the victims of Fr. Lawrence Murphy.

Unlike Gibney, I actually spoke with Fr. Brundage on the telephone. As I talked with him, his dedication to the victims, his desire for justice, and his love of the Church were truly palpable. This is obviously a good man and a good priest who always strived to do the right thing in the Murphy case.

And now Gibney besmirches the priest as “forgetful, mendacious or irresponsibly inaccurate” merely because, in a mountain of documents about the case spanning several years, he was unable to independently and magically recall in his memory a draft of a letter from twelve years earlier that was composed within days of Fr. Murphy’s death. (Murphy was likely dead by the time the letter even made it to its overseas destination at the Vatican.)

Anyone with even a vague idea about the typical day of a Catholic priest, especially one in a demanding position such as the one that Fr. Brundage held, knows that priests often deal with numerous letters, documents, forms, and messages on a daily basis. To castigate a priest for failing to remember a particular letter from over a decade earlier is both silly and unfair.

And even though one should hardly apologize for failing to remember such a letter from so much time earlier, Fr. Brundage did so, and he did so profusely. It is a testament to the goodness of the man, yet Gibney (and the New York Times, for that matter) have bludgeoned him for it.

2. Gibney dismisses Fr. Brundage as a source, yet Gibney has corralled several individuals for his project whose integrity, I believe, falls far short for any professional filmmaker in search of accuracy.

Two such interview subjects in his work are Patrick J. Wall and Fr. Thomas P. Doyle, both of whom have an extensive history of animosity against the Catholic Church.

Notably, both Doyle and Wall have written about issues of canon law on behalf of contingency lawyers suing the Catholic Church. However, while Gibney presents these men as experts in Church matters, the pair’s knowledge and skills leave something to be desired.

In a recently dismissed lawsuit against the Holy See, veteran canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters, one of the most respected men in his field (and one who also has a civil law degree), reviewed declarations for the case about canon law written by both Wall and Doyle. He then proceeded to shred the pair’s claims in a 103-page rebuttal. Peters found their work to be “incomplete and misleading in several crucial respects” and containing “profound” and “significant” mistakes and errors. The pair’s characterizations of canon law “reflect a basic lack of understanding regarding the nature of canon law itself,” concluded Peters.

The few words I’ve quoted here hardly do justice to the utter smack-down of Wall and Doyle that Peters leveled. In a nutshell, a lot of what these men have said and written about the Catholic Church has been discredited.

Gibney should be embarrassed. The number of outright falsehoods and misleading claims in his film about Church history, teaching, and operations could fill a number of articles. I have documented many of these, and in the coming weeks people can look for posts about these issues at TheMediaReport.com. A couple months ago, I posted a rebuttal to the film’s trailer.

3. Gibney claims that “Archbishop [William E.] Cousins did not act swiftly. Nor did he show sympathy toward the victims. He lectured the victims for maligning Father Murphy.”

Gibney is obviously displeased that my article exposed a dated timeline about Archbishop Cousins’ handling of the Murphy case. The undeniable truth is that within days after a May 9, 1974 meeting to discuss Fr. Murphy, the abusive priest was “relieved of all teaching and pastoral duties as they relate to the students” at St. John’s School for the Deaf. Considering the entrenched leadership roles that Murphy held at the school, these actions were no small measures.

We also know that by September, not only was Murphy gone from St. John’s completely, but he was moving nearly 300 miles away to live with his mother, and never received a formal assignment ever again.

Exposing this timeline is very inconvenient to Mr. Gibney, because it exhibits documented actions by the Church, and it conflicts with the film’s claim that the victims “got nowhere” with the Church. In response to this documentation, Gibney throws out some red herring statements and claims, many of which have nothing to do with my analysis of his film.

For example, Gibney attacks Archbishop Cousins because the late archbishop reportedly did not “ask” the victims about Murphy’s abuse because they were “deaf.” Gibney thinks this observation is somehow notable, when, in fact, this acknowledgement may actually bolster the position that Cousins already believed the abuse claims to be real and credible. And, as we know, the archbishop did something about it.

Gibney also claims that the only reason that Cousins acted the way he did in 1974 was because parents threatened to go public and sue. This assertion seems very odd. Victims of Murphy did go public. A year earlier at least one victim had already reported Murphy to the police. We also know that victims went out to the streets and put numerous flyers on the windshields of people’s cars, including that of the local district attorney. (And we know how all of this turned out; the police did nothing. Gibney has downplayed this important fact.) And as far as lawsuits, one was filed in 1975, and it was settled a year later.

Would it be nice to have more clarity about Cousins’ thinking and actions over the years regarding the Murphy case? Of course, but Cousins died nearly a quarter of a century ago at age 86, and it seems there is very little contemporaneous documentation of some particulars of certain events.

4. Gibney also wrote, “Archbishop Cousins’ predecessor, Archbishop [Albert Gregory] Meyer, also allowed Murphy’s behavior to go unpunished despite complaints.” Gibney clearly implies that Meyer never did anything about Murphy.

However, according to a 1997 letter written by Fr. David Walsh, who was a chaplain for the deaf at the time of the events at issue, Murphy actually admitted abuse to Archbishop Meyer. Meyer then sent Murphy to a “retreat house in Northern Wisconsin and told [him] to return to St. John’s to undue (sic) the harm he had done.”

Notice that Meyer did apparently acknowledge that “harm” had been done to victims. To be sure, the “punishment” is not nearly the same kind we would witness by today’s rightfully heightened standards. But Meyer, whose last year as archbishop was in 1958, was unfortunately acting according to the mores of his day, when acts of pedophilia, hebephilia, and ephebophilia were largely managed as psychological and spiritual issues, rather than criminal ones. This is a sad and tragic fact, but undeniably true.

5. Gibney repeats the claim (which he makes in his film a number of times) that the Vatican was somehow aware of Fr. Murphy’s abuse as the time it was occurring (the 1950s to the early 1970s).

I actually addressed this exact scenario by noting the problems that the Church and society as a whole would have faced if this were indeed the case. I suggest that Gibney go back and read my piece.

6. Regarding my section addressing the debate about Pope John Paul II’s actions following the reports of abuse by Fr. Marcial Maciel, Gibney becomes apoplectic over the fact that I incorrectly heard and transcribed one measly pronoun (“it” instead of “him”) from the narration in his movie. Gibney sees this error as evidence for his conclusion that I “excoriate[d] a film for a quote that never existed.”

In truth, whether or not Gibney says the late pontiff “celebrated it (Macial’s abuse)” or he “celebrated him (Maciel himself),” the director’s message is essentially the same. Gibney seeks to smear John Paul II as dismissive of and callous about the abuse of children by priests.

In an April 2002 message to the cardinals of the United States, John Paul II could not have been blunter. The abuse of children by priests is a “crime” and an “appalling sin” that has caused victims “suffering,” “scandal,” and “great harm.”

“People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” the Pope asserted.

John Paul II’s remarks are hardly emblematic of someone who “celebrated” abusive priests, especially ones like the monstrous and deceitful Maciel.

7. Gibney ends his reply to my article with a personal attack on me by asking whether I “create facts to make [myself] feel better as a slavish defender of abuses of power.”

In truth, this is one attack for which I will not fault Gibney. The director does not know me, and neither is he familiar with the years of writing I have done on this important issue.

In the years I have been writing about the issue of the media’s treatment of sex abuse and the Catholic Church, I have always strived to be mindful that this is an extremely grave and delicate topic. I have never defended any wrongdoing whatsoever. As I’ve stated countless times before, the abuse of minors by Catholic priests has wreaked incalculable harm upon victims. This fact should always be front and center in any treatment of the subject.

In closing, I should repeat the fact that I made an extensive and sincere effort to speak with Gibney about his film. I spoke with his publicist over the phone, and our talk was cordial and professional. However, I felt that when she got the sense that my take on the film was less-than-glowing, there was a bit of resistance to my request to talk with the director. I politely followed up our conversation by both phone and email, but I never heard anything.

In far less time than Gibney took to compose his reply to me, he could have called me and responded to some of my issues with the film. We also would have been able to mend the little “it”-versus-“him” glitch, as it was certainly a line I wanted to ask him about.

I extend the opportunity to speak with Gibney about his film if he wishes, as long as it is in a courteous manner. I am sure that his publicist still has all of my contact information.

[Editor’s note: Due to an editing oversight and miscommuncation, this post contained a line that did not reflect the views of its author regarding Bl. John Paul II and Maciel. It has been removed. We regret the error.]

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About David F. Pierre, Jr. 14 Articles
David F. Pierre, Jr. is creator and author of TheMediaReport.com 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.