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.
To quote psychologist Donald R. Gannon, where ...