Mea Maxima Culpa
Does Gibney raise legitimate and grave questions about the handling—or mishandling—of the abuse on the local diocesan level and the accountability of individual prelates? Yes. And the movie is most compelling when keeping the victims front and center.
However, Gibney, an accomplished documentarian whose works include the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, veers into conspiracy-theory territory more befitting a Dan Brown novel than a serious investigation.
By Gibney's reckoning, the Murphy case is symptomatic of a policy of cover-up within the Holy See that leads "to the highest corridors of the Vatican." Moreover, he places Pope Benedict in the crosshairs, inferring the pontiff, at best, was asleep at the wheel, or at worst, complicit in obstructing justice in the Murphy and other molestation cases.
The truth is that the charges were first brought to the attention of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, by Milwaukee's scandal-embroiled former Archbishop Rembert Weakland in 1996, decades after local Milwaukee law enforcement and diocesan officials already knew of the crimes and the statutes of limitations had expired under both civil and church law.
It also suggests that Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), had jurisdiction over the case, when, in fact, the CDF's jurisdiction in these cases was not clarified until 2001. In any case, then and now, the primary responsibility in cases of abuse rests with the local bishop. (Meanwhile, Gibney resorts to sensationalism when he brings up the CDF's historical connection to the Inquisition, illustrating it with lurid images of torture.)
The film does admit that local legal authorities also failed to act, but insinuatingly identifies the Milwaukee district attorney at the time as a "devout Catholic." Less clearly presented is the fact that Rome did approve pursuing disciplinary action through a canonical trial, since some of the abuse had been connected to the sacrament of confession—an ecclesial crime for which there is no statute of limitations. Murphy died of natural causes during the proceedings.
Embracing a post-Watergate ethos of "cover-ups" and "smoking guns," Gibney paints these standard internal inquiries in conspiratorial shades. Much is made of "secrecy," when in reality the Church is hardly alone in requiring strict confidentiality in the investigation of alleged criminal activity—it's also part of the American justice system.
In breaking out the brickbats, the film also makes an ugly insinuation involving Pope John Paul II's support of disgraced Legionnaires of Christ founder Marcial Maciel. Gibney chooses his words carefully, but the implication is clear.