Verdict: A Review of the Documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

The documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, is spellbinding for its crisp focus on the tragic fate of boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, who were preyed upon by school Director Fr. Lawrence Murphy, who ran the school.  The film segues between these more domestic scenes and the exotic, luxurious scenery of the Vatican, where the Popes and the cardinals failed to stop Murphy (and other pedophiles such as the infamous Rev. Marcial Maciel), and who are as responsible as Murphy is for the victims’ lifelong suffering.

The cold, snowy Wisconsin imagery, the beauty of the school itself, and the accounts of the creepy Murphy trolling through the boys’ dormitory at night make what until recently was unspeakable, tangible.  HBO Films; the producers, Todd and Jedd Wider; and the director, Alex Gibney, all deserve credit for taking on a topic that is so timely, yet difficult to accurately explain.  Keep an eye on Oscar nominations this week, as this documentary deserves a nod.

The timing of Mea Maxima Culpa is fortuitous, not so much because these men are part of the many lawsuits that are now pending against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but truly because this film captures the paradigm of institution-based abuse.  The real issue at the heart of this film is not just the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s callous and evil self-interest, but the way in which every institution that has created the conditions for the serial abuse of children by conniving child predators, has done so.  Each and every organization that deals with children should have its President, Board, and all employees watch this film, and then read this column so that they can identify the players, the machinations, and the mistakes that institutions make when it comes to children and pedophiles.

Thus, while this documentary is about the institution of the Catholic Church, it is also about Penn State, the Boy Scouts, The Horace Mann School, Poly Prep Country Day School, Orthodox Jews and Hasidic Orthodox Jews, the Red Sox, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Baptists, Olympic coaches and athletes, pediatricians and patients, Pop Warner football leagues, little leagues, orphanages, and every public and private school.

The paradigm of institution-based abuse always includes three different constituencies: (1) the survivors and their families; (2) the perpetrator(s); and (3) the institution at issue, including its leaders and employees.

The Survivors and their Families

The victims of institution-based abuse typically are children in need of adult attention, love, and protection.  They are often in broken families that cannot come to the child’s aid, and they may have already been abused by family members or others in their lives.  They may be isolated or perhaps unsure, or scared, of their sexuality.  In a word, they are vulnerable.

So many of the social disabilities that make kids vulnerable are not visible.  The genius of Mea Maxima Culpa is that the survivors are deaf and, so, they are vividly disabled, or as some put it, differently abled.  As you see these brave men sign their stories (with the voice of a narrator interpreting), you are constantly reminded that they were in need of extra protection from the school.  One of the most memorable moments of the film occurred when one of the men who had survived abuse said that Murphy targeted the boys who came from homes where the parents did not sign.  Thus, regardless of how much their parents loved their sons and worked to create a stable home for them, their sons simply could not tell the parents what was happening to them.  There were no TTY phones that could have facilitated communication.  Instead, the boys were away at a boarding school, with no parents there, and even when they returned home on breaks, they were disabled from enlisting their parents’ protection from the predator Murphy.  This is the paradigm of the defenseless child.

The silence of the survivors in Mea Maxima Culpa is the perfect representation of the vast majority of survivors, including those who are not deaf, because shame, humiliation, and confusion keep children silent.  So do the threats leveled against them by the perpetrator.  The men in this film are the paradigm of the isolated, resourceless child victim in an institution run by adults.

Most of Jerry Sandusky’s victims (at least, the ones that we currently know about) came through his charity The Second Mile and so, like the St. John’s students, they were in need.  Either a parent had passed away; or the parents had divorced; or the family was dysfunctional to the point that the boy needed an outside organization to supply some warmth and stability.

These deaf survivors, when filmed, were extraordinarily expressive.  Somehow, the use of their hands to sign, along with their emotion-filled facial expressions, conveyed more emotion than mere words can.  Each time a victim was on-screen, usually seated by himself, it was riveting and excruciating at the same time.  Yet, every victim suffers to the core, just as these men have.

The children of St. John’s loved their school and Murphy, who was jolly and fun.  They vied for his attention and felt honored and proud when he wanted to spend time with them alone, at least until they understood what time alone meant.  The same, of course, was true for Jerry Sandusky.

As children, both the St. John’s students and the Second Mile boys had a difficult time processing their mentors’ betrayal.  When Murphy, of all people, told a boy to pull down his pants in Murphy’s office, the boy obeyed, feeling that it was wrong to do, but at the same time feeling duty-bound to obey Murphy, whom, after all, everyone loved.  The children’s confusion in the moment was vivid on the screen as these men in their 40’s and 50’s explained what happened.

For the boys at St. John’s, the confusion was especially profound, because their families had taught them to respect and defer to priests.  But Jerry Sandusky’s victims at Penn State felt the same confusion.  He was a football deity in State College, who dazzled boys in need with his easy entree to Penn State’s football universe.  The adult universe had labeled him a hero; who were they, as children, to tell the adults that this hero was, in fact, a monster?

What happened at St. John’s, The Second Mile, and Penn State was typical of the dynamic of child sex abuse in every institutional setting.

The Perpetrator

Child predators are wily, patient plotters who calculatingly groom their victims in order to pave the way for them to be alone with the child without others suspecting their true motive.  They dole out attention, gifts, and special treatment to children in need.  In this film, the perpetrator was the popular priest who ran the beloved school.  At Penn State, it was Jerry Sandusky delivering dreams of football greatness, access to Penn State’s players and coaches, gifts, money, and individual attention.

Institution-based abuse is all about perpetrators who use trust to obtain the child sex they seek.  They lure the child with single-minded devotion, and at the same time, they make contributions in the adult world that make them valuable to the adults around them, and to the institution.  Murphy was a successful fundraiser, a skill desperately needed in private schools, and Sandusky was the country’s most successful defensive coordinator.  Both bonded with the boys they sought, as they simultaneously made themselves indispensable to the adults.

This pattern plays out even in home-based abuse, with single working mothers asking their apparently trustworthy, out-of-work boyfriends to babysit a child, only later to learn that the child was sexually abused.  The mothers need the help, and the pedophile knows how to manipulate the situation to get the child alone with him.

There is one thing perpetrators need most to achieve their goals, and that is secrecy.  They usually threaten the child in order to keep him or her from telling others about the abuse.  They might threaten to hurt the child, and may also threaten to hurt the child’s parents or family.  Either way, it does not take a lot for a grown-up to instill enough fear into a child to keep the secret between them.  Sometimes, as with the deaf boys whose families did not sign, or when one of the Second Mile families was so dysfunctional that family members could not communicate with each other, threats are not needed to ensure secrecy.  That does not mean, though, that the criminal mind of a pedophile cannot overcome a supportive family.  The more a family might support the child, the more devious a predator will be with his or her threats.  Priests and pastors have told children that they, or their parents, will burn in hell if they ever tell.  Jerry Sandusky told victim Travis Weaver that he would have his father fired from Penn State, where he had worked his entire career, if Travis ever told.  Plenty of other perpetrators have shamed their child victims into silence by saying it was the child’s fault.  Children are gullible, so these tactics work.

Nowhere is this pattern of vulnerable gullibility taken over by wily persistence better defined than it is in Mea Maxima Culpa.  The image of Murphy, in the middle of the night, strolling by the beds of the sleeping boys, says it all.

The Institution, Along With Its Leaders and Employees

The documentary introduces the Roman Catholic Church in its layers, with focus on the campus shifting to Bishop Weakland and the Milwaukee Archdiocese, and eventually to the larger institution at the Vatican.  The theatergoer sees Pope John Paul II and his highest lieutenants treat serial abuser Maciel with the utmost respect and affection, even after they knew about his abusing ways.  The loving treatment of the charismatic Maciel underscores the respect and affection accorded Murphy.

Bishop Weakland comes across as a too-late savior, who now admits there was wrongdoing and an inadequate response.  You have to like this warm, charismatic figure, even as you know intellectually that he did not do enough to protect kids from Murphy, and neither did anyone else in the organization.  While the Vatican is the epitome of the Bonfire of the Vanities, Weakland is Babbitt.

The film ultimately depicts a bureaucracy of powerful men with deeply interconnected lives, who don’t take a single step to protect the children sleeping so innocently in their beds at St. John’s.  They are successful, and breathtakingly powerful, in the case of Pope John Paul II and of the cold Cardinal Angelo Sodano. (In 2002, Sodano was elected to be Vice Dean of the College of Cardinals.  From 2005-06, he served as Secretary of the Secretariat of State; he retired as Secretary in 2006.  He still serves as Dean of the College of Cardinals.)  Then there was Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger oversaw the Vatican’s office overseeing the global child sex abuse scandal, who did much too little, much too late.  These men run the largest religious institution in the world, which, as the film notes, is so powerful it persuaded the world’s governments to promote it to foreign sovereign status.  Its power and wealth leads them, in their roles, to put its image at a premium.  So the children are so much refuse in the wake of these powerful men’s protection of their beloved institution.

It takes little imagination to translate the same principles to Penn State, where Joe Paterno was the pope of football, and, therefore, of the university.  The Penn State administrators are the curiae.  Everyone put Penn State’s image first.  And the kids in the Penn State showers were left to take one for the team.

In both circumstances—Penn State and the Catholic Church—the men in power, who could have easily protected these poor children, are themselves far removed from the scene of the crime, emotionally unavailable, and so wrapped up in the matters that they believe are really important, that they recklessly do not see what matters most.  Their busy blindness gives the perpetrators free rein, and paves the way to their own downfall, both morally and professionally.  While these men concentrated on the heady business of running their institutions, the perpetrators in their midst exploited the freedom that secrecy accords pedophiles.  The result: the children, their families, the institutions, and we suffer.

That is the paradigm of institutional child sex abuse.