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Erica Abeel Headshot

Silence in the House of God, or When the Trail Leads to the Top

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Many American filmmakers have the bad habit, in my view, of taking an impartial stance when it comes to stories about the behavior of borderline criminal characters. Consider such feature films as Margin Call by J.C. Chandor and, more recently, Arbitrage by Nicholas Jarecki, which follow the toxic maneuvers of financial miscreants yet fastidiously refrain from passing judgment, as if the directors were mesmerized, mental functions on hold, by the mere sight of a senior partner at Goldman Sachs who flies to an Asian tailor for fittings of handmade suits.

That's why documentaries have become essential. Like the blessedly biased MSNBC, they're not afraid to stake out positions, offer outrage a bullhorn. Most crucially, perhaps, hard-hitting documentaries air abuses by the powerful that mainstream media lacks the cojones to expose. Now Alex Gibney, preeminent documentarian and a specialist in the abuse of power, weighs in with the superb Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which tackles the subject of child sex crimes and cover-up in the Catholic church.

You may think you've been there before -- sexcapades of the clergy have received ample exposure in the press; and Amy Berg's 2006 docu Deliver us from Evil fired the opening salvo. But Gibney (awarded a 2007 Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side) takes you places you won't have have imagined. His new film (translated as "My Most Grievous Fault") winds its way from the heartland of Milwaukee, through the churches of Ireland -- all the way to the highest offices of the Vatican.

Gibney focuses on one Father Murphy, for many years head of a boarding school in Milwaukee, St. John's School for the Deaf, who regularly molested boys in his charge. The story is relayed through the four former victims themselves -- Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger -- who courageously set out to nail Murphy starting in the mid-70s to protect boys still consigned to his care. Because their deafness locked them in a silent world and made them doubly defenseless the testimony of these men is all the more searing. At the same time their likeability and tenacity leavens a tale that might be otherwise unbearable. "In the midst of this very dark story, there was something there to celebrate," Gibney said in an interview.

Along with the testimony of the four men (rendered through signing plus the off-camera voices of actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke), Gibney adroitly interweaves talks with journos who've covered the sex abuse beat, such as Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times; and re-enactments of Father Murphy's wolf-like prowls through the darkened dormitory among the traumatized boys. That the re-enactments play like a Hammer Horror film, reflecting the boys' fears, feels entirely appropriate.

A covert church investigation of Murphy concluded he had may have sexually assaulted at least 200 deaf boys. But the real news is not so much the exposure of one more career pedophile -- it's the fact that the criminal was protected. Connecting the dots, Gibney doggedly follows a tangled network of crime and cover-up all the way up to the Vatican and the Pontiff himself. (It's somewhat poignant to think that Gibney himself is a Roman Catholic, albeit a lapsed one.) Drawing on research by the Times and other papers, the film details how Murphy's predations were hidden by top church officials, including the current Pope Benedict XVI, in his previous post as head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

According to a secret source, Gibney's findings so freaked out Italians dominated by Rome that it was rejected when he submitted the film to the 69th Venice Film Festival.

Mea Maxima Culpa feels especially timely given the sexual abuse scandal currently roiling England's BBC. "My film may be about the Catholic Church," Gibney said, "but you can see this same abuse of power in other institutions, whether it's Penn State or the BBC. And you see how predators can live in plain sight due to their outsized reputations -- how Jimmy Savile got away with it is the same as how Father Murphy got away with it. So I think Mea Maxima Culpa has a lot to say about how the mechanism of cover-up works, when institutions are more concerned with protecting power than protecting lives."