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The Catholic Church on film: When the men in black lost their role as the good guys

Priests were once movie symbols of decency and heroism. Scandals in the Catholic Church have ended that, says Geoffrey Macnab
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In old Hollywood films, you rarely come across a bad Catholic. Picture Bing Crosby as the kind-hearted Father O'Malley trying to have a school saved from closing down in The Bells of St Mary's (1945) or Pat O'Brien as the priest striving to keep kids away from crime – and his old friend James Cagney's bad example – in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938.)

European films likewise used to portray Catholic priests in a heroic light. In Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City (1945), there is an immensely moving performance from Aldo Fabrizi as the priest who works with the Italian resistance against the Nazis and is prepared to face torture and death for his beliefs. When they weren't genial, avuncular sorts or wartime heroes, priests were depicted as complex, intense, but still sympathetic. Witness Montogomery Clift as Father Michael, hearing a murderer's guilt in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1953.) Even in horror films like The Exorcist (1973), the priests were there to ward off evil.

It's hardly surprising that priests were given such a positive spin. During the studio era, the American Catholic Church had a strong influence over the kinds of films that were made. The Legion of Decency was an influential body set up by Catholic bishops in the 1930s to police the film industry. When the League took against a film, it could scupper its chances.

The Catholic lobby can still hurt a film. For example, one reason Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass (2007) failed in the US was that the Catholic League called for its boycott. Pullman, the League claimed, was out to “bash Christianity and promote atheism”.

It is striking, though, how recent depictions of Catholic priests in feature films and documentaries have become ever harsher and more skeptical. US director Alex Gibney's new doc Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God offers a devastating picture of Catholic priests at their very worst. The film shows how, for over a quarter of a century, a Catholic priest at St John's School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin, preyed on and sexually abused pupils. In spite of repeated warnings about his behaviour that reached the Vatican, no action was taken against Lawrence C Murphy, the priest.

Gibney's film starts in Wisconsin and follows a trail that leads it via the notorious case of the Elvis-impersonating paedophile priest Father Murphy in Ireland all the way to the “highest corridors of the Vatican”. Mea Maxima Culpa makes it very clear that senior Catholic authorities knew about the abuse in Ireland and the US long before the media did but were very slow to act against it.

“You can see in Ireland now the thing that really flipped everybody was not the crimes but the cover-up,” Gibney says of the Catholic sexual-abuse scandal. “People finally get these documents and they realise that they [the Catholic Church] knew about it all along. That just makes their blood boil. The idea of someone looking you in the eye and lying to you. Also, hiding behind a noble cause.”

There have been many films over the last decade or so that have expressed the suspicion and indignation felt about the behaviour of Catholic priests. Costa-Gavras's Amen (2002) raked over the behaviour of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi era. In the film, a Nazi officer (Ulrich Tukur) tries to inform the Vatican of what is going on in the death camps but the Church seems determined to ignore his warnings. When the film screened in Berlin, he was accused of skimping research and distorting facts. Nonetheless, Pope Pius XII's failure to denounce publicly the Nazi atrocities has long been a source of embarrassment to the Church.

When Gibney tried to approach senior Catholic authorities, he was rebuffed and ignored. “We purposefully didn't announce it [the film] early on. I went to the Vatican sotto voce but that didn't seem to help,” the director recalls. “I don't think any campaign was mounted to try to stop us. I think the Vatican's point of view, or what they try to do, is to ignore you – to pretend to think you are just a tree falling in the forest, they've moved on, it's an old story and it is all good now.”

While Amen and Mea Maxima Culpa follow the trail to the highest reaches of the Catholic Church, there are plenty of other films that show wrongdoing and abuse at ground level. Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which won the Golden Lion in Venice, looked at the plight of young “fallen” women in Ireland locked away in a Catholic-run asylum where they were mistreated by sadistic nuns. And abusive priests and nuns have become the villains in more and more movies.

Mea Maxima Culpa tells a story that many still do not want to hear. No UK distributor picked it up in spite of its winning the Grierson Award For Best Documentary at the London Film Festival. (It is being released by Irish company Element Pictures). The Venice Festival rejected it amid rumours that it was “embarrassing” to the organisers. The Catholic League has already pronounced the film “a fraud”.

But it's very hard to see how the days of Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby can ever come back. See a priest in a movie today and the chances are that it's time to run.

'Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God' is released on 15 February