Tracing the cover-up to the Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI bears personal responsibility for not holding sexually abusive priests in the Catholic Church accountable, alleges the director of a new documentary, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.”

“From 2001 to 2005, as cardinal, [Benedict] ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And in that office, he looked over every sex abuse case that there was all over the world. So he’s the most knowledgeable person in the world about this issue,” director Alex Gibney told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “Then, as pope, he presided, as more and more information about this came out. And he was pretty much utterly ineffective in being able to stem the tide.”

Gibney, whose documentaries have taken on complicated characters from Jack Abramoff to Dick Cheney, says Benedict took some positive steps: “He did make some apologies. He did blame some bishops. But he took no responsibility for the Vatican itself. So, in a way, I think this whole sex abuse crisis engulfed Benedict.”

“Mea Maxima Culpa” focuses on the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, an American priest who is accused of molesting as many as 200 boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf. The film traces his case to the highest levels of Church power.

A former student at the school, Terry Kohut, told the filmmakers about a time he was alone in Father Murphy’s office. He says the priest asked him to take off his pants.

“I was looking at this man in a black suit with a white collar. I thought to myself, he’s a priest and I’m supposed to obey him. So I took my pants down and he molested me. I felt sick and confused. Why would a priest do that to me?” Kohut described all these years later, using sign language.

The filmmaker believes that Father Murphy went after deaf children whose parents could not sign, so they could not even tell their families what was happening to them.

“But at the end of the day, there was no real punishment at all for Father Murphy, even though the deaf students and, indeed, one archbishop tried to reach out to then Cardinal Ratzinger to have this man defrocked. It never happened. And so he was buried in his priestly vestments. No punishment at all was meted out on him.”

Mea Maxima Culpa is Latin for “my most grievous fault.” There are no interviews with Vatican officials in the documentary, which is why Gibney says the subtitle of the film is “Silence in the House of God.”

“Sadly, there was utter silence,” he told Amanpour. “And I not only went to the Vatican, but I also went to the most high-ranking prelate in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and asked him over and over and over again to please speak to us. And once again, the answer that came back was silence.”

Many practicing Roman Catholics participated in the film. Gibney believes they took part because they hope to change the Church.

“It’s a system-wide problem,” Gibney said. “Unless the church reckons with it, it’s going to come crashing down.”