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 & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Fern Britton's gardening challenge may grow into something special

Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?