Pope Benedict. (Flickr)
Reports continue to develop on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children by priests. Now, a powerful documentary is telling the whole story on TV: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which is playing on HBO for the month of February. The filmmaker is Alex Gibney, who won the Academy Award for best documentary for Taxi to the Dark Side, on torture in Afghanistan. His other films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. I spoke with him recently for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles.
Jon Wiener: You start your film at a Catholic school for the deaf in Milwaukee in 1972. The heroes of your film are a small group of deaf guys who went public as adults with the truth about what a priest had done to them when they were students at the school. You interview the deaf men, but they can’t talk—they speak in sign language. And yet they are wonderfully articulate. It’s amazing to watch them—as you translate in voice-over.
Alex Gibney: The four guys had all been students at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. They had all been abused, and as young men, just post-college, they had banded together to see if they could stop this abuse from continuing. They were the first people in America to make a public protest about sex abuse of children by priests. They spent many years trying to have their voices “heard.” Yes they can’t speak, but they are so expressive—you can see on their faces and in their hands their testimony, which is at once horrible but also gripping. They maintain a sense of humanity and humor and idealism despite all of this.
The timing here is significant. When did the Church hierarchy first hear about the problem of pedophile priests? Was it this Milwaukee case in 1972?
Certainly not. Documents going back to the fourth century show that the Church was aware of a pedophilia problem. We also learn in the course of this film that, in the 1940s and ’50s, there was a man named Gerald Fitzgerald who ran an order called the Servants of the Paraclete, charged with dealing with pedophile priests. He became so concerned about the number of priests who were abusing children that he actually put a down payment on an island off the coast of Grenada to house pedophile priests there. That didn’t happen.
The story really has two parts: what the priests did to the boys, and what the Church did to the priests. What did the Church do?
Very often the “treatment” for pedophile priests was prayer. And then they’d send them back out. Basically, what the Church did was to cover it up. We interview one person in the film called a “fixer.” He was a Benedictine monk. His job was to go around to parishes where there had been pedophile priests, bringing a bag of money to pay people off and make confidentiality agreements—to buy people off.