Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God – Film Review

Director: Alex Gibney

Starring: Jamey Sheridan, John Slattery and Chris Cooper

Released: 22 February, 2013

Documenting the first reported cases of child abuse within the Catholic Church and tracing the situation right up to the present day, Mea Maxima Culpa is an admirably objective perspective on a truly horrifying subject. It makes a point of differentiating between Catholicism, the religion, and the Church itself as an institution. The documentary opens with a number of students describing their childhood in a Catholic school, emphatically describing it as a blissfully happy time. Gibney is very careful to articulate what the primary concerns in this situation are.

Pointedly, while there are a number of talking heads describing their ordeals (a brave and admirable act), this is context for the main issue: the fact that the Church strived to cover up these travesties and keep the offending priests from facing the justice system. There are moments in interviews with the clergy, from less than 15 years ago, that simply defy belief.

“Why didn’t you report this issue?”
“I suppose I should have…I just had so much to do.”

The documentary is restrained, careful to deal with the facts and divorced from (strong) emotion that might cloud the issue at hand. In dealing with subject matter such as this, it would be completely unsurprising to see one of the victims reduced to tears, and for the director to allow the camera to linger upon them, in order to pull at the heart strings of the audience. Gibney does not do this. The closest he comes to falling prey to demonizing the Church is in some brief reconstructions of events in which some priests are interacting with young students. Even in these scenes, they are only depicted as sinister due to the very grim but very real events that they represent.

There is a great deal of information to be mined from this documentary, it deals with not just the offending priests themselves but the higher powers situated in the Vatican and how they are currently dealing with the outrage of the general public. It is stressed how the crew were denied any opportunity for an interview, even showing footage of one such failed attempt to question Pope Benedict, who dismisses them impatiently and irritably.

Although it is not gratuitous for the sake of shock value, Mea Maxima Culpa is still far from a casual film, despite its accessibility. It is a brave feature to present now, especially to Irish audiences, with whom the subject matter will strike a chord. It picks its fight carefully.

Armed with solid evidence and an objective viewpoint, it throws up serious questions regarding faith, justice and the relationship between the two.

Score: 4/5

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