Interview : Mea Maxima Culpa director Alex Gibney

Alex GibneyThis interview originally featured on

In a career of over 30 years, director Alex Gibney has proven himself most adept at capturing the fallible side of human nature in a way that is both intelligent and incisive. He’s charted the falls from grace of Enron and Eliot Spitzer. He’s probed the demons that drove the genius of Hunter S. Thompson. He won an Oscar for his examination of the practice of torture by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. All these films blend smart filmmaking with a humanity right at the core, and the same is especially true of his latest film.

In Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence of the House Of God, Gibney charts the efforts of the Vatican to cover up the scandal of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. His approach is to tell the tale from the point of view of four victims of one of the first acknowledged cases in the United States. Fr. Lawrence Murphy molested up to 200 children at the former St. John School for The Deaf in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four of Murphy’s now-adult victims share their story, and from there Gibney charts the scandal all the way to the Vatican, revealing other countries’ experience of abuse along the way, including Ireland. It’s harrowing but also necessarily upfront and honest. In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation, questions will be asked of the reason’s surrounding the resignation, and Mea Maxima Culpa could well stoke the fire.

Gibney’s film is informed by his own experiences. As a lapsed Catholic, the resulting film benefits from his knowledge and own understanding of how the Church works. We caught up with Gibney a few days after the screening of Mea Maxima Culpa at the London Film Festival in October.


THE FILM CYNIC: Before you made Mea Maxima Culpa, how aware were you of the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church in the US?

ALEX GIBNEY: You know, it’s a funny thing because now that I look back, I mean I suppose I should have been aware when I was young. You know, some of the lead-in questions the priests would ask me and my pals about sex, and also certain joking references like, ‘Don’t be going back in the sacristy with Fr. Hanlon’. But it was all said in a sort of joking way, like it was just part of the deal. So I think, like everybody else, I wasn’t really made powerfully aware of it until 2002. I mean, I remember Sinéad O’Connor ripping up the picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, and I remember some other incidents, but it was 2002 when it became really evident.

Many people remember Sinéad O’Connor doing that.

She was in the film for a while, and that moment was in the film for a while, but not any more.

When it came to investigations and interviewing the victims, were they keen to talk?

I think so. I mean, all of them didn’t agree at first, but we did persuade them all to come on board. And I think all of them felt the silence had been eating them up inside, so talking was actually something they could do that was actually healing the pain.

It’s interesting, when we had the US première of the film at the Milwaukee Film Festival, a lot of the survivors turned up, and the Church issued a statement that said ‘Oh, isn’t this too bad that this… This is a story that happened a long time ago. It feels like the picking of the scab of an old wound that is only doing damage to the victims themselves.’ Which was of course a pathetically self-serving statement by the Church, but they’re also dead wrong. The fact was this ability and willingness to speak out was actually part of a healing process, not part of a scab-picking.

Was the idea to focus on the Milwaukee case, or was the expansion into other countries always part of the film?

It was always part of it, but it was not necessarily all the countries. This case in particular (St. John School for the Deaf) seemed so powerful in part because of how horrific it was, but also because the documents did lead you straight up the chain all the way to the top. I felt other films had been done about victims in the past, but what hadn’t been done was a powerful story that would lead to the top, and a powerful story that had at its heart a bunch of characters who are heroes in some fundamental way. So all those things convinced me.

Mea Maxima Culpa charts the scale of the abuse, right up to culpabilty of the Pope in its denial and suppression.

But the biggest problem in the cutting room was how to balance it with the intimate story, which was very moving and so resonant when we started to find these old home movies of the period in Milwaukee. When we cut it, we had about 80 minutes of the Milwaukee story, and it was a riveting story. But I think we knew that we had to balance them out, so the hardest part in the cutting room was to figure out that right balance.

Honestly, Ireland wasn’t necessarily organically related. I mean, there’s nothing about the Murphy report. In fact, it was causing us problems; we had Laurence Murphy in Wisconsin and the Murphy report in Ireland. We have a Fr. Walsh in Wisconsin and a Fr. Walsh in Dublin. What was powerful about Ireland for us, and why we had to figure out a way into the story, was because the landscape changed so radically in Ireland. It was vital to show how change could occur.

That change manifested itself in events like the speech by Enda Kenny…

Unbelievable speech! ‘The rape and torture of children’.

Which it was. And some Church authorities backed up him up on that. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, for example.

I think Diarmuid Martin is, in his own way, a hero. We tried to talk to him; for whatever reason he decided not to.  He did a heroic thing by leaking those documents to the Murphy Commission. But his career in the Church is over.

I think also the Irish situation, if I may, is writ large what is the situation for many Catholics. I mean, priests say ‘If we get them young, we never lose them’. I’ve experienced this myself; there’s a woman in the film who says it (Catholicism) is like a blood type. But I think, for a lot of Catholics, it’s just who you are and so it’s very difficult to denounce the Church because it’s like denouncing yourself. And in Ireland, Catholicism is so bound up in nationalism and resistance to the British crown and all of that, so it’s very hard to give that up.

Even though we’ve gone beyond that degree of nationalism in the Republic, Catholicism is just accepted as a norm.

That’s what makes it remarkable that the change has happened. It think it’s a testament to just how grievous the crimes were. I was told that Desmond Connell’s line got a laugh (In an archive interview with former Archbishop of Dublin Desmond Connell, when asked why he didn’t visit with abuse victims, he claimed he had too much work to do). In the States, it gets a sucking-in of breath, but it is a remarkable comment when someone says they have so much to do.

Is there anything the Church can do to pull itself out of this mire?

Yeah: open up the archives. Secrecy was the crime, so end the secrecy. What would be wrong with that? I mean, if you’re an institution devoted to power, you could understand why that’s a problem, but if you’re an institution devoted to charity and love, as the Catholic Church would like us to believe, then what would be wrong with opening up all the archives and showing us all the documents?


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