Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Originally posted on February 5, 2013

Last night, HBO ran the film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It is a documentary about the first four men to protest the Catholic Church’s cover up of sexual abuse. From HBO:

MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD investigates the secret crimes of Father Lawrence Murphy, a charismatic Milwaukee priest who abused more than 200 Deaf children in a school under his control. The film documents the first known public protest against clerical sex abuse in the U.S., which led to a case that spanned three decades and ultimately resulted in a lawsuit against the pontiff himself. The investigation helped uncover documents from the secret Vatican archives that show the Pope, who must operate within the mysterious rules of the Roman Curia, as both responsible and helpless in the face of evil.

At the heart of the film is a small group of heroes – Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger. These courageous Deaf men set out to expose the priest who had abused them and sought to protect other children, making their voices heard. Gibney uses the voices of actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan and John Slattery to tell the stories of men abused by Murphy. However, it is the faces and expressions of the courageous Deaf men that illustrate the indelible effect Murphy continues to have on their lives.

In addition to the Murphy case, MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD spotlights similar sex abuse cases in Ireland and Italy, and highlights the horrific actions of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a prominent church fundraiser and ruthless sex criminal beloved by Pope John Paul II. The film also reveals that in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger – now His Holiness, Benedict the 16th – ordered that every sex abuse case involving a minor come through his desk, essentially establishing him as the most knowledgeable person in the world regarding priestly sexual abuse of minors.

It is a powerful film. It shows the suffering the boys went through and how the abuse was not just limited to little boys but also committed against older teen boys. When the news reports these cases, they give only a glimpse of what the survivors go through. In the film, we get to see this up close.

Murphy not only preyed on these boys, but he used their deafness to his own benefit. He would target boys whose parents could not sign, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the boys to tell anyone but someone working at the school, most of whom were loyal to Murphy, about the abuse.

Murphy’s actions did not stop with just the abuse. He also recruited some of the boys he had previously abused to help him find other boys, and possibly, as one of the survivors suggested, had those older boys abuse younger boys to prepare them for Murphy. He also turned the boys against each other. During the summer months, Murphy would take the boys to a cabin in Wisconsin. There, he would make the boys choose which one of them would sleep with him. The boys knew that Murphy would rape the boy, and none of them wanted to be picked. However, for some reason the boys all picked a boy named Joe.

The most obvious question is how did no one notice all this? Murphy was anything but careful in actions. As one of the survivors put it, where were the nuns that should have watched the kids? It seems they turned a blind eye to it, later supporting Murphy when some of the boys reported him.

There were some who tried to do the right thing. Father David Walsh repeatedly reported Murphy’s actions to his superiors, starting as far in the late 1950s, yet nothing was done. At one point, Walsh temporarily replaced Murphy. One of the boys reported the abuse to Walsh and waited to see what would happen. Walsh and Murphy had a heated argument in the hallway when Murphy, which the boy witnessed, yet nothing came of it. Murphy remained.

Astonishingly, when Bob Bolger and several other survivors got a meeting with Church officials, including two officials from the Vatican, they discovered that Walsh had reported Murphy to Archbishop Cousins numerous times, yet Cousins sided with Murphy. Despite Walsh’s reports over 20 years against Murphy, Cousins protected Murphy, and asked questions only of the adult staff. In documents later released to the public, when asked why he did not talk to any students, Cousins stated he did not believe them because “after all, the students are deaf.”

Patrick Wall traveled the country at the behest of the Church removing priests who abused children. He thought that they would be punished, yet found that the Church chose instead to settle cases on the condition that all the parties sign confidentiality orders and face excommunication if they violated them. During that time, Wall never reported anything to the authorities. Disgusted by the cover-up, Wall left the priesthood.

Father Gerald Fitzgerald opened a treatment center for misbehaving priests, eventually accepting sexually abusive priests. While he did not seek to defrock any of the priests, he did find that sexually abusive priests should be kept away from children. He petitioned the Vatican to buy an island to put the priests on, but instead the Vatican sought to have the priests rehabilitated and later reassigned to new parishes.  Fitzgerald was notably outspoken about his opinions of sexually abusive priests, yet the Church ignored him.

What the film shows time and time again is that the Vatican was far more concerned about protecting the sanctity of the priesthood and the abusive priests’ “dignity” and standing than protecting children. This desire was so profound that, like Murphy, they took advantage of one man’s deafness.

Gary Smith, fed up with the lack of response from the Church, told his father Gerald Smith about the abuse. His father hired a lawyer, and together they sued the Church. During that time, supporters of Murphy, including nuns, for lack of a better word, harassed the Smiths to drop the case. Eventually the Church sought a settlement, but they went about it in a most underhanded way. They went to Gary and tricked him into signing a settlement in which he apologized to the Church for making his allegations and impugning their character. Gary had no one with him who could sign for him and was only marginally literate of English, so he had no idea what he was signing. If that was not enough, the Church failed to pay the $5,000 they promised him for treatment for over twenty years.

Yet the most egregious part is the role that former Pope John Paul II played in these cover ups. John Paul placed then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, currently Pope Benedict XVI, in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. In 2001, Ratzinger convinced the Pope to allow the Congregation to handle all the abuse cases. For at least five years, Ratzinger knew of every single allegation brought against priests and nuns. While it seems that Ratzinger was troubled by the allegations, the film suggests that his concern was primarily about what it meant for the priesthood. He took more issue with how the abuse tainted the priesthood rather than its affects of the victims.

Worse, John Paul may have protected a man he knew abused children. Father Marcial Maciel procured money for the Church, and formed a close friendship with the Pope. Allegations of abuse against Maciel began in the 1970s, but the best known were made in 1997 by nine men claiming Maciel abused them decades ago. Ratzinger was in charge of the investigations, yet they were shut down. No further action was taken against Maciel until after John Paul died. Literally on the day the Pope died, Ratzinger reopened the investigations against Maciel. The investigations proved the allegations warranted and true, yet again nothing happened. Instead, Maciel was allowed to retire in 2006. It was four years later that the Church denounced the man and his actions.

The film also notes that the Church tried to play the sex abuse scandals off as an American problem. Yet in the last three years, scores of the cases have broken in Europe, especially in Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, Father Tony Walsh, known as the singing priest, abused hundreds of boys. Again, the Church knew about it the allegations for decades. Indeed, just days after being ordained Walsh was accused of sexual abuse.

When petitioned to dismiss Walsh, the Church delayed, and during that time Walsh abused another boy. The Church wanted to tuck him away in a monastery rather than dismiss him. Fed up with the lack of movement, parents reported Walsh to the police, and it was only after Walsh was tried and sentenced to prison that the Vatican dismissed him.

Amazingly, the film notes that in Vatican documents going back to the 4th century there is mention of priests abusing children. So this is hardly a new problem, let alone something unique to a particular part of the world. This is a systemic issue caused by presenting priests as above their congregation. Priests have a great deal of power by virtue of being emissaries of Christ. That reverence not only allows them to cover up their bad acts, be it child abuse or other crimes, but it also affords them the arrogance to think they are above earthly punishment. The prestige the priesthood carries then becomes as mystical as the rites priests perform. To admit that so many of them are corrupt would bring question to the nature of the priesthood itself.

The abuse problem is not about celibacy; it is about unquestioned power. In every institution in which people in power go unquestioned, we see wide-spread abuse and cover-ups. And the leaps in logic that those protecting that power and those committing those acts jump through to rationalize the abuse is a thing to behold. For example, Murphy justified his actions by claiming that there was “rampant homosexuality among the altar boys” and that by abusing them he was “taking their sins” upon himself and “satisfying their needs.”

That may just be the delusions of that one man, yet the Vatican itself seems to think that a person who repeatedly abused children could be moved somewhere else and the abuse would stop. A couple of months of prayer would be enough, and they could then be trusted around children again.

While it is likely that some priests who abused a child did not reoffend after being reported and treated, it is unlikely that most stopped on their own accord. If they were inclined to do that, they would have before being caught. Basic reason says that one should not simply assume without proof that these men are trustworthy.

The film shows that the Church made no real effort to protect children. Instead, the focus was on protecting the priests and the priesthood. To witness the pain of Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi, and Bob Bolger, to hear their stories and decide to nothing shows a callousness one would not expect from a religion of love. It is hard to imagine that if Christ returns he would not grab every major Vatican official, point to the lake of fire and say, “Just go.”

If one ever wants to see how corrupting power can be, the Catholic Church is the best living example of it.


2 thoughts on “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

  1. In 1926, in Mexico, began the Cristero Wars. Hit wikipedia if you wish. Several arguments are given for that war, and major persecution of the Catholic priests.

    A cousin in my little village says the old people in his family told him it was more than political in nature. That there were simply too many pregnant girls in this village at their hands. Remember the plural of anecdote is not data, but that is a local memory.

    There have been pedophile priests in Mexico, but nothing of the scale we had in the US.

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