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Not Rated (for adult content and adult language)
Directed By
Alex Gibney
Run Time
1 hour 46 minutes
Cast
Alex Gibney, Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn
Theatre Release
November 16, 2012 by HBO

In T. S. Elliot's "Murder in the Cathedral," the play's doomed Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Thomas Becket, confesses, "[This] last temptation is the greatest of treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

The line came to mind throughout Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which airs on HBO tonight (9/8c). Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney's scolding documentary on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church professes to serve the truth, but obscures it for obvious ulterior motives.

The film profiles several well-publicized cases of pedophilia by clergy on both sides of the Atlantic. The principal focus, however, is the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, a Wisconsin priest accused of serial abuse of young boys, while serving at the Saint John School for the Deaf, from the 1950s to 1974.

Mea Maxima Culpa, which takes its title from the Latin phrase in the Confiteor penitential prayer meaning "My most grievous fault," starts off strong, as several of Murphy's victims—now grown men—use sign language to tell their agonizing stories, while actors including Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke lend them voices.

Gibney's effective use of archival photographs and grainy home movies helps to recall the era and underscore Murphy's depravity by emphasizing the innocence and vulnerability of the victims.

These crimes and the response by civil and ecclesial authorities can hardly be covered dispassionately. But in Gibney's hands, advocacy for justice gives way to an activist agenda that relies on half-truths rather than facts to cast the Catholic Church in a sinister light.

Conspiracy Theories

To quote psychologist Donald R. Gannon, where facts are few, experts are many. And Gibney offers no shortage of those, carting out a Greek chorus of professional church critics to help build his case, including former Benedictine monk Richard Sipe, who makes the blanket statement that the system of Catholic clergy, "selects, cultivates, protects, defends and produces sexual abusers."

Noticeably missing is Father Thomas Brundage, the former judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who presided over the Murphy case and who, according to an article in The Catholic World Report, was not contacted by the filmmaker. In a response to that article, Gibney dismisses Brundage as "forgetful, mendacious or irresponsibly inaccurate" for a misstatement the priest made about a 1998 draft memo involving Murphy—but that hardly excuses the omission. (CWR writer David Pierre later addressed Gibney's response.)

Gibney gives ample screen time to Jeff Anderson, the attorney for several of the victims, who has made a lucrative career suing the Church and whom the film paints as Martin Luther and Atticus Finch rolled into one. While Anderson is a relevant voice, it's worth noting, as William McGurn did in The Wall Street Journal in 2010, "It's hard to think of anyone with greater financial interest in promoting the public narrative of a church that takes zero action against abuser priests, with Pope Benedict XVI personally culpable."

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Mea Maxima Culpa