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. 

“That meant that after 2001 then Cardinal Ratzinger saw every single case that was announced. He is probably the most knowledgeable person about clerical sex abuse on Earth.”

As he made the film Gibney believed he had already sensed the scope and scale of abuse crisis. But it was only when he studied the details of the Milwaukee case that he understood how much evidence there was to see it as a global criminal conspiracy. 

“We went over to Italy to research the film and while there we found there was a school for the deaf in Verona where a similar abuse crisis had erupted. That brought home to me the idea that patterns of abuse repeat themselves.” 

Calling it a criminal conspiracy is fighting words, he knows. 

“The reason I say it is that it that there have clearly been organized attempts to cover up this behavior. You can see that in the Murphy case. You can that in Irish cases,” he said.

“Part of what was revealed in the Irish government investigations was how civil society finally came forward to take responsibility for the abuses that were carried out. They also take responsibility for ending the horror and cover up by the church. So there’s tangible evidence already to call this an international criminal conspiracy.”

Gibney is receiving pushback from Catholic organizations that claim that, although raised Catholic, he’s anti-Catholic in his views. 

“If the people who make these claims actually watch the film they’ll see there’s a key moment in the film where Tom Doyle, who testifies in a lot of these cases on behalf of the victims says, ‘People say to me why don’t you ever act on behalf of the church?’ Well, my replay is that I always act for the church. The church is the one billion Catholics, not the small number of men who are in the hierarchy.”

In that sense Gibney sees the film as a powerful plea to fellow Catholics that says enough, the hierarchy has corrupted the church. “There’s a difference between a faith and the venal abuses of power shown by its bureaucracy,” he explains.

In Ireland, the most common response Gibney noticed from the people he interviewed was anger. 

“There were a few people like Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin who are trying to reckon with the anger over the abuse, but so many others there are burying their heads in the sand,” he said.

The most shocking part of Mea Culpa is that these crimes were carried out on children. In this case, deaf children. 

“Criminal prosecutions should only stop when we know that the cover ups have stopped,” says Gibney. 

“Prosecutions are important in terms of making them stop. You’re now seeing them in the United States where priests are being held to account not just for abusing but also for covering up abusing priests.

“That’s why survivors are so furious at the church, because it doesn’t seem to understand the need to show justice. In the middle of his canonical trial Ratzinger said about Murphy, well gosh he’s an old guy, we should just let it go? Really? That’s justice?”

Watch the trailer for 'Mea Maxima Culpa' here: