11/08/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

A Movie Healed Them

The most poignant images in Alex Gibney's newest film are photos of young boys with crew cuts and toothy smiles, standing alongside a Catholic priest in his Roman collar. Rev. Lawrence Murphy looks every bit the "father" he was supposed to be to the hundreds of deaf children entrusted to him over his 25-year career at St. John's School near Milwaukee. Alex Gibney's new documentary, which is likely to get an Oscar bid, reveals him to be a sexual predator who violated at least a hundred children, and possibly many more.

Gibney's movie, which is called "Mea Maxima Culpa, Silence in the House of God," reveals the Murphy case as a horrendous example of the clerical system that allowed thousands of priests to sexually abuse children in America and around the world. In almost every case, clergymen used the power of their office and the faith of the innocent to commit crime after crime. They were then protected by written and unwritten codes of conduct that led bishops and other higher-ups to ignore, cover-up and ultimately perpetuate the abuse.

Father Murphy was first the subject of a fellow priest's complaint in the 1950s when a chaplain reported his suspicions to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. No serious response was mustered and Murphy not only remained at the school but was promoted to director and principal. Students who complained in 1974, distributing homemade "wanted" posters with Murphy's picture, were ignored. Twenty-two years would pass before Milwaukee church officials pressed Rome to remove Murphy from the priesthood. He died before this could happen. However, some of his victims did get a measure of justice when they confronted Murphy and recorded the moment on videotape. Gibney makes good use of this footage.

In the video, Arthur Budzinski, Gary Smith and Bob Bolger travel by car from Milwaukee to a lake in rural Wisconsin. There they stop at a small clapboard cottage where they see an older woman standing outside holding a lawn chair. Budzinski keeps his camera trained on her as Smith and Bolger get out and approach. They know her. She is a nun named Sister Grace. As Bolger signs to her, she replies, also in sign, telling him to wait while she goes inside. As she moves to the door of the cottage Bolger signs, "Go tell Father Murphy to come out here."

As Bolger gestures with quick and powerful movements an interpreter says, "You should not be living here with him. He's been molesting boys for 25 years. How dare you live here with him?"

Sister Grace returns with an older man who is balding and a bit stooped. Father Murphy greets Bolger in sign and the two immediately begin to argue.

"We came here for sex," signs Bolger.

"I don't come for sex," answers Murphy

"Yes you have! You are a molester!"

The confrontation lasts less than five minutes, but it's long enough for the men to force an apology out of their former principal and pastor. The men also get an opportunity to shout, in sign, "You go to prison now!"

Once a domineering bully and manipulative charmer, the Murphy who shuffled away to hide was a pathetic and cowardly creature. In Gibney's film the men who confronted him gradually overcome their shame and psychological trauma and become effective advocates for victims of abuse. They also help Gibney show how responsibility for the Catholic sex abuse crisis resides, ultimately, in the Vatican. It is there where complaints of abuse were buried in the Church bureaucracy and priestly perpetrators found protection in a system that routinely ignored crimes against children for the sake of avoiding scandal.

A tough and touching work, "Mea Maxima Culpa, Silence in the House of God," has been a hit at festivals this fall, selling-out theaters and winning the top honor for documentaries from the British Film Institute. The excitement around the movie has prompted talk of another Academy Award for Gibney, who won in 2008 with "Taxi to the Dark Side," an investigation of torture in America's so-called war or terror.

I saw Gibney's new film in its American debut at the Milwaukee Film Festival where people lined up around the block to buy tickets and TV news crews splashed the theater entrance with bright lights.

During the showing, many viewers shed tears and many more applauded victims who told their stories on camera.

After the film ended Smith and Budzinski stood with Gibney during the post-screening talk and they fielded most of the questions. Smith's son and Budzinski's daughters stood up to praise their fathers for telling the truth, which had once silenced them. Speaking through a sign language interpreter, both men said their families had come to know them fully with the help of Gibney's storytelling. The movie had healed them when their pastors could not.