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

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

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album