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.

When you say “the Church knew,” who exactly are we talking about?

It had been believed for many years that bishops were basically on their own, dealing with these matters as they saw fit. That was the fiction that Rome had advanced. But it turns out that, to defrock a priest, you had to go to Rome. Only a pope can do that. Those issues went to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who ran an organization called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—formerly known as “the Inquisition.” In 2001 Pope John Paul II decided to give Cardinal Ratzinger all the authority on all sexual abuse cases.

Where is Cardinal Ratzinger now?

Now he is Pope Benedict XVI.

So who is the most knowledgeable person in the world about priests abusing children?

Pope Benedict. Every report starting in 2001 came to his office.

The first part of the story is what the priests did to the boys. The second part is what the Church did to the priests. And there is a third part: What did the Church do for the victims?

Almost nothing. The overriding concern of the Church was not justice for the victims, not protection of victims. It was to care for the priests. Pope Benedict said he was very sorry for the victims, but you can see in the actions of the hierarchy that their concern is for protecting the Church from scandal, and also protecting their brother priests.

One of the significant parts of the story is how civil society managed to take over from the religious hierarchy and demand justice and dispense justice—either through financial claims or through criminal prosecution. At the end of the day, you see committed people—including some priests—who understand that there’s a crime here, and that they have to fight against it. Part of the story is people coming together in order to make that happen.

You show Patrick Buchanan and some guests on Fox News saying the lawsuits and the media attention to sexual abuse by priests are “an attack on the Church.” Are they right?

No. There’s moving moment in the film where Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who has testified for the plaintiffs, says “many people ask me why I don’t testify on behalf of the Church in these cases. I tell them I always testify on behalf of the Church.” He means that “the Church” is the 1 billion Catholics who are its members. The parishioners, the faithful, in his opinion, are the church. This film is not anti-Catholic. It’s anti-crime. This is a crime story. And a story about a cover-up of criminals.

What about you? Are you Catholic?

I was raised Catholic. I’m not a practicing Catholic now. I’m very much a cultural Catholic; my identity was shaped by having been Catholic.

Your documentary is subtitled “Silence in the House of God.” Obviously that refers to the silence of the church in the face of these crimes. But does it also refer to the deaf men who made the first complaints, using sign language, back in 1972?

It does indeed. Theirs was a more beautiful silence—the silence of those signs, that ultimately led to reform and change.