Believing that you can do no harm because God is on your side has a long history, but it’s still one of the most dangerous ideas you can entertain. As Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has discovered, the consequences of that belief have been playing out for decades in the Catholic Church. In his new powerful new film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, he tells Cahir O'Doherty why he holds the church to account for it.
Fearlessness. That’s the quality that best describes film director Alex Gibney’s approach to his art, which happens to be Oscar (and Emmy, Grammy and Peabody) winning documentary filmmaking.
Where some might hesitate over the controversial nature of the material at hand, Gibney, 59, has consistently shown a willingness to grapple with the issues that the vested interests would prefer he overlooked.
It’s a trait he inherited from his legendary Scranton, Pennsylvania-born Irish American father Frank, the former editor of Time and Life magazines. It’s what made his son Yale material, and it’s what saw him quickly make a name for himself as a filmmaker after graduating from UCLA.
In 2008, Gibney won the Academy Award for Best Documentary for Taxi to the Dark Side, a film that exposed the brutal torture practices endorsed by the Bush administration and then adopted by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. Although the film was garlanded in awards it still proved a hard sell with distributors here, and the major networks declined to screen it due to its subject matter.
So Gibney is used to sometimes finding his work celebrated by the critics and held at arms length by the industry, depending on whose actions are being examined.
His latest Oscar nominated film is no stranger to controversy already. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which debuts on HBO on Monday, February 4, begins by profiling Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who abused more than 200 deaf children at a Catholic school in Milwaukee decades ago.
Now adults, the film follows the four former students Arthur Budzinski, Terry Kohot, Pat Kuehn, and Gary Smith as they seek to redress the wrongs done to them and countless others by holding the church responsible.
But what happens next is as jaw dropping as it is unexpected. In researching the decades long scandal, they uncover the shocking secret that the man with the most information about the scandal turns out to be Pope Benedict himself.
“I was raised Catholic so it was obviously an emotional issue for me,” Gibney tells the Irish Voice. “I mean, it’s a shocking story for anyone but particularly for Catholics.
“What motivated me to take it on was the particular poignancy of this story, involving over 200 deaf students and the fact that they appear to be the first ones in the United States who raised a public protest about what happened to them.”
The second thing that motivated Gibney’s decision was the way that this story connected to the bigger international abuse crisis in the church, he says. The film makes it clear what a worldwide conspiracy it was.
The cover up was clearly driven from the top he adds, pointing directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
The third part of what motivated Gibney to make the film was the participation of the former students themselves. “It gives the film a deep poignancy but it also fills you with hope that they will be vindicated, so they emerge as everyday heroes by the film’s end,” he says.
Some might wonder what all these revelations have done to Gibney’s own faith?
“My faith in organized religion was shattered before the making of this film,” he admits. “I’m a cultural Catholic, I’m not a church going one. I got furious with the church years ago for its creation of what I’d call a cultural ghetto.
“The abuse crisis didn’t shatter my faith. But it was haunting for me to discover that this was part of the culture when I was growing up.”
One thread that seems to recur in Gibney’s films is how a culture of abuse and cover up can flourish in almost any human enterprise, alongside what happens when a whistleblower decides to alert the whole world.
“There’s no question that this subject matter is about as bleak as it gets. But there’s a rather powerful ray of hope in the fact that these characters who had no voice – often literally – still managed to be heard,” he said.
Gibney is referring to the sign language employed by the deaf men, which becomes increasingly impassioned as they sign how traumatized they were by what happened to them.
“Pope John Paul made the decision to have the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handle every single abuse claim made against the church,” Gibney says, referring to the film’s most explosive claim.