12 June 2013

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God DVD Review

In the wake of the Jimmy Saville revelations and Operation Yewtree, you’d be forgiven for thinking that old television personalities from the 70’s had a monopoly on committing shocking sex crimes. There is however an institution even older than the BBC with an equally chequered history when it comes to abuse, the Catholic Church. This record of abuse is the focus of Alex Gibney documentary Mea Maxim Culpa: Silence in the House of God which asks whether the set-up of Catholicism had an implicit part to play in the silence surrounding the multiple cases.

The cases themselves turn out to be numerous and spread worldwide but Gibney’s doc is centred in Boston and on the case of Father Laurence Murphy, the head priest at St. Johns school for the deaf. Murphy was a popular figure among the children there, a hearing adult fluent in sign language and able to communicate and establish a rapour with them – the first abuse of power we witness in this hard-hitting documentary. Via signed talking heads with former pupils of St. Johns we learn how this trust was quickly used by Murphy to establish a horrific ritual of sexual abuse and assertion of control across St. Johns. Narration informs us of the frequent and disturbing practices the priest embarked on throughout his time at the school.

Added to the horror of the revelations we hear are shadowy reconstructions of events, utilising religious iconography and imagery to heighten the terror – so prevalent they are in outright horror films.

Setting the film apart from the countless news articles used as source material, Gibney goes further to examine the complicit role of the church itself in hiding such scandals and therefore forcing those guilty to re-offend. Cases appear across America and the rest of the world and Mea Maxima Culpa goes right to the heart, turning their attention and their cameras towards the Vatican.

Established as its own state under the Mussolini reign, Vatican City is free from traditional Italian law and is instead governed under their established Canal law. This self-serving set of rules enables the church to deal with matters in house, often leading to a lot of sweeping under the carpet and hiding away from public scrutiny.

This sense of unravelling of the truth, under chapter-like headings such as ‘the whistleblower’ and ‘the reckoning’ and the use of sharp editing add a suspense to the film leading it to play out almost like a heist or thriller film and ensures it becomes more than the made for TV special it could be in danger of appearing. The sense of anger of pupils, victims and indeed those within the church who bravely stood up to voice their concerns prevails throughout and, while some are able to seek solace, the continued silence coming from the Vatican is deafening and the most frustrating element of all.


Matthew Walsh

Rating: 15
DVD Release Date: 24th June 2013 (UK)
Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke

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