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Film review: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (15)


By a freak of timing, this documentary on abuses in the Catholic Church ends up indicting one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become – and this week resign as – Benedict XVI.

The charge is abetting a cover-up, though he's not the major villain. That would be Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest at St John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin, who between 1950 and 1974 sexually assaulted many young students and suborned older ones to help him.

The documentarist Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) interviews the victims, now grown men, as they harrowingly explain how efforts to expose their tormentor were blocked, or ignored, by the state and the church. (Actors' voices provide the words.)

What made the horror of it doubly so was their deafness, first in their vulnerability to Murphy ("a ravenous wolf") on his night-time visits to the dormitory, and then in their inability to communicate it to their parents, many of whom didn't know how to use sign language.

It simply beggars belief to learn how the church's conspiracy of silence operated, how it was thought more expedient to hush up the crimes by transferring the offenders to "other duties" than to do right by the victims. The report of the abuses eventually reached as high as the Vatican, where a heavy gate of secrecy was brought down upon the matter.

Occasionally, the film's chapter titles amp up the drama – "Devil in Disguise", "Omerta" – when the facts can speak for themselves. In his retirement the ex-Pontiff might like to give Mea Maxima Culpa a screening: there could be no surer prompt to Christian remorse.