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“Mea Maxima Culpa”: New Doc Exposes Horror of Catholic Child Sex Abuser and Heroism of His Victims

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“Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” a new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, investigates how a charismatic priest in Milwaukee abused more than 200 deaf children in a Catholic boarding school under his control. The young students were molested again and again by Father Lawrence Murphy, who stalked them in their dorm rooms at night, on trips to his rural cabin, and even in the confessional booth. Gibney, whose past films include “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and the Academy Award-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” joins us to discuss his new exposé, which opens this Friday in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, and will debut on HBO in February 2013. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now from an evolving story of child sex abuse in Britain to a long-simmering case of pedophilia here in the United States that involves the Catholic Church. A new documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney investigates how a charismatic priest in Milwaukee abused more than 200 deaf children in a Catholic boarding school under his control. The young students were molested again and again by Father Lawrence Murphy, who stalked them in their dorm rooms at night, on trips to his rural cabin, and even in the confessional booth. This is a clip from Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

TERRY KOHUT: I was afraid to tell my mother, because I didn’t think she would believe me. She’d say, “A priest would never do something like that to children.” I kept it a secret. My mother had already been through so much pain. My brother had been electrocuted. My father had hung himself. My mother had been through so much pain, and I didn’t want to hurt her.

GARY SMITH: It was hard for me to communicate with my father, and so my dad would speak, and Father Murphy would interpret. My father never wrote back and forth, because I didn’t know how to write well, so I depended on Father Murphy and the nuns to communicate with my father.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the courageous deaf men who later came forward to protect other children from Father Murphy—and to demand he be held accountable. They are the heroes of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The priest’s victims tried for more than three decades to bring him to justice, but the film shows the church neither defrocked him nor referred him for prosecution. It also uncovers documents from secret Vatican archives that portray the Pope as both responsible and helpless in the face of this abuse.

Well, for more on this incredible story of how these men stood up to the power of the Catholic Church, we’re joined by the film’s director, Alex Gibney. His past films include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which focuses on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God opens this Friday in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and will debut on HBO in February.

Alex Gibney, welcome Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back.

ALEX GIBNEY: Great to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: This film opened at the London Film Festival as the scandal is now unfolding at the BBC?

ALEX GIBNEY: As the Jimmy Savile scandal was unfolding. So, you know, I was a bit unprepared, because it was just breaking, but I was being asked all these questions, because there are certain key similarities. It has to do with how an institution doesn’t recognize what’s going on inside it.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Father Murphy. Tell us about your film.

ALEX GIBNEY: Father Murphy was a priest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who ran St. John’s School for the Deaf. And he was actually very charismatic. He raised a ton of money for the school. He was an expert signer. And he was actually much loved in the deaf community. But not unlike Jimmy Savile, his role in the community gave him access to his victims. And he was a—he was a criminal, it’s fair to say. And he abused over 200 deaf children at St. John’s School for the Deaf.

AMY GOODMAN: How? How did this happen?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, you have to remember, these kids were under his control. It was a boarding school. And very often, it happened in the confessional. And that ultimately became part of the church’s aborted case into this. And the church itself often refers to abuse in the confessional as a kind of soul murder, because you’re taking kids who are so vulnerable and using that vulnerability against them—in this case, by learning things about them. So he, for example, learned which kids had parents who couldn’t themselves sign. And then he would go after them, because they literally couldn’t communicate with their own parents, and often would have to communicate with their parents through Father Murphy, who was the predator.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is a horrific story. I watched your film last night. It is also deeply moving, and it’s a story of courage. But the descriptions of these now men, boys in the confessional, and Father Murphy would say, “Pull down your pants.”

ALEX GIBNEY: That’s right. I mean, I think—this guy was a predator. I mean an absolute predator. And it’s haunting to see the images of these children, who were so innocent, being so deeply abused by somebody in such a position of power.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about how this case broke.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, the case broke, in a way, only fairly recently, to some extent, because there was an article in the New York Times by Laurie Goodstein talking about the Lawrence Murphy case, which really took place back in the '50s, ’60s and ’70s. Murphy himself was forced out of Milwaukee because of the threat of lawsuits, but there was never a prosecution, nor was there any kind of a defrocking process, until very much later, in the ’90s. So, we know about this case kind of in reverse, in part because of the courage of these deaf men, who worked so hard to see if they could get him defrocked and also to sue the church. As a result of the lawsuits, documents were uncovered which linked this case to the Vatican and the Vatican's cover-up of this case.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the Pope.

ALEX GIBNEY: I think one of the most interesting things about Pope Benedict, the current pope—and there’s a lot about both him and the previous pope, John Paul, in this film—one of the most interesting things about him was, before he was pope, he was Cardinal Ratzinger, and he ran what was called the Congregation [for] the Doctrine [of] the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. After 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger got all sex abuse cases sent to his office. So Cardinal Ratzinger actually knows more about clerical sex abuse than any human being on the planet. And then he became pope. But it was while he was Cardinal Ratzinger that the case of Murphy was brought to the Congregation [for] the Doctrine of the Faith.

Interestingly enough, you know, instead of moving quickly to defrock him, they took pity on the priest himself, who wrote a very poignant letter saying, “Look, I’m an old guy now. This was so long ago. I’m so sorry. Please let me die as a priest.” And that is the wish that was granted by the Vatican. And so there was no justice for the deaf victims.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read part of the Vatican spokesperson’s statement on Father Murphy. Reverend Federico Lombardi wrote in 2010, quote, “By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Father Murphy violated the law, and more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had in him.”

ALEX GIBNEY: That’s right. I mean, I—there couldn’t be anything more horrific in terms of the abuse that Father Murphy, you know, was responsible for. But the staggering thing is, what these deaf heroes wanted was justice, fundamentally. And also, frankly, they wanted to protect other children. And so, so far as we know, in 1974, three of these deaf victims actually mounted a public protest. So far as we can determine, it’s the first public protest against clerical sex abuse in the country. They were kind of the patient zero of this story. And it took them so many years to actually have their voices heard, but it’s their tenacity, I think, which is such an extraordinary part of the story. That’s their heroism.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about a critique of Mea Maxima Culpa that was made in the Catholic World Report's review of your film. The author notes you lament the fact that the Catholic Church never formally laicized, or defrocked, Father Murphy, and argues, quote, “Had the Church laicized the abusive priest back in 1974, or even earlier, it would no longer have [had] any control over Murphy's life activities whatsoever. With the police already having decided not to pursue criminal charges, Murphy would have been as free as any regular citizen to go and work wherever he pleased. The man would have been free to prey indefinitely on unsuspecting, innocent boys,” unquote. Alex Gibney, your response?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think that’s just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, the idea that you would not give sense of fundamental justice and allow this guy to continue on as a priest, as a holy man, who had then further access to other children—because, actually, after 1974, he was sent to Boulder Junction in Wisconsin and preyed on other children up there. He didn’t have—there were ministerial restrictions on him, but his—his status as a priest continued to give him access and cover to be a predator. So to say that, “Oh, well, we were—you know, we were able to control him and protect other children,” is laughable in the extreme.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about the chief fundraiser for the Catholic Church, for the Pope.

ALEX GIBNEY: The—you’re referring now to Marcial Maciel Degollado. Yes, this is a fascinating story, because it involves both Pope Benedict, then as Cardinal Ratzinger, and Pope John Paul. One of the most horrific abusers, sex abusers, was a guy named Maciel, who ran the Legion of Christ. And he raised tremendous amounts of money for the church. And as a result, he was given a pass by Pope John Paul, even though it was brought to his attention over and over and over and over again that this guy was a notorious sex abuser. Just as John Paul is dying, finally, Cardinal Ratzinger has an opportunity to actually pursue this case, which he had wanted to do for some time. And he sends a prosecutor out to gather evidence. He gathers a tremendous amount of evidence that he’s a horrible sex abuser, but when he becomes pope, he does not continue the prosecution, thus leading to the conclusion that it’s the institution itself that’s problematic and corrupt, that the institution itself is so needful of its own power that it won’t move against its own.

AMY GOODMAN: This is not only a story of just horrific victimization, but of these young boys who become heroes. Talk about how they take their victimization in their own hands when they get older. First of all, how did they learn from each other that this was happening to different people? And then, for example, slapping Murphy’s face on hand-drawn wanted posters.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, it’s really interesting. It was actually in the early '70s, when these kids had left St. John's, and then they got together and started hanging out with each other—ironically, ended up sort of hanging out and smoking dope, and would then recall things, recall memories that had been repressed. They began to get angrier and angrier and angrier, and then began to share their experiences with each other, and then were determined, you know, “Something has to be done. We have to do something about this. We’ve been—remained silent for too long.” And their motivation was to try to protect other children. They went to the police, and the police did not behave well at all in this story, either, it should be noted. Nor did the, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: What did the police say?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, in one instance, a policeman went back to Father Murphy and asked about one of these accusations of abuse. He said, “Oh, you can’t listen to those kids; they’re retarded.” “Retarded” was the word that he used.

AMY GOODMAN: These children were deaf.

ALEX GIBNEY: These children were deaf. And that was another thing. In terms of the way the church, for a long time, regarded these children was terribly unfortunate. In fact, Archbishop Cousins, who was in charge, you know, in 1974, when he was finally removed, in a deposition, he was asked, “Did you ever go to the children and ask them what had happened?” And he said, “Well, no, of course not. We didn’t do that.” And the lawyer in the deposition said, “Well, why not?” He said, “Well, the children are—are deaf,” as if that was an explanation for why you wouldn’t go to the victims to understand what they were saying.

Interestingly enough, the victims, the survivors, these kids, started passing out leaflets, as you suggest, you know, which was in that time an extraordinary act of courage. An adviser of theirs said, “Look, you’re not going to get that far doing this. What you really need to do is go to the man in charge, the archbishop. Once the archbishop learns of this horrible abuse, of course he’ll put a stop to it.” Well, they had a meeting with Archbishop Cousins and, as it happens, two representatives of the Vatican. They presented their case. Father Murphy was in the room. But the archbishop, instead of acting with outrage, dressed them down and actually criticized them for bringing, you know, ill repute to the church. And after all, Father Murphy had done so much good, why were these kids raining on his parade? So it was a rather shocking exchange described by a number of them in the room who couldn’t believe that they came forward with all this courage in order to present this terrible case to protect other children, and they were told, you know, “We’re going to protect Father Murphy here. We’re not going to fire him, because he’s doing so much good.”

AMY GOODMAN: Last question—I mean, the beauty of this film is that these men are speaking in their own voices through their own hands. But do you feel that the story of the Catholic Church has been fully told, at the global level, the story of the Catholic Church and the preying on young people?

ALEX GIBNEY: I think what hasn’t been properly told is the cover-up. And that is a global story, and that is a global story that’s ongoing. And remarkably, the Catholic Church has not disgorged itself of its documents relating to the sex-abuse scandal, not only to show us what happened in the past, but to give us information about abusers in the present to protect other children. That story has not been told at all, and that’s part of what we intended to do in this film.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Alex Gibney, I want to thank you for being with us, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. His latest film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, it is opening in New York and Los Angeles and will air on HBO in February.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Congress is back in session. Stay with us.

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