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Did a documentary film force the Pope to resign?

Reviewed: Mea Maxima Culpa.

A screen capture from the film Mea Maxima Culpa
Pope Benedict XVI makes his exit. Image: HBO.

Why did the Pope resign? Yes, yes, he is old and ill. But what could possibly possess a man so wedded to tradition to break with it so forcefully? We all remember images of John Paul II bending over a microphone, squinting at the faithful and blessing them with all the energy he had. “One does not come down from the cross,” his former secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, is said to have quipped last week. In one sense at least, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger has ensured his legacy. He has instituted a get-out clause that will enable the College of Cardinals to elect the most able among them, responding in a timely fashion to the demands of the job.

The number of Catholics, we are often told, is growing. But this is only true where population growth is swelling the ranks. In Europe and North America, the number of people actively engaging with the Church is in decline. “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary,” the Pope said in his valedictory speech. But is it secularism that demands a fit and healthy knight of faith, or an issue which Benedict XVI knew a great deal more intimately?

“The resignation seems to me inextricably linked to the sex abuse crisis,” Alex Gibney told the Hollywood Reporter on 12 February, the day Ratzinger announced that he was stepping down. “It’s two days before Ash Wednesday. Because of the way that the conclave works, it means no pope will probably reside over Easter Sunday Mass. You wonder if there is another shoe to drop.” Gibney, the American documentarian responsible for Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), has made new film about another seemingly unimpeachable organisation: the Vatican, and its attempts to cover-up, or simply ignore, corruption within its ranks.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is to place the victims' stories front and centre. Too often the sex abuse scandal has revolved around the institution, its hierarchical arrangement and the complicated fallibility of supposedly infallible men. We begin with the case of Father Lawrence Murphy, the priest assigned to the St John’s School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin between 1950 and 1974. Murphy systematically abused hundreds of boys, picking out individuals whose parents could not sign, in order that their pleas would go unheard, cornering them in the confessional and picking them out of their dorms at night. The case is narrated by a group of survivors, now middle aged, who pursued legal action against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) and later, in an ongoing suit, against the Vatican.

This is contrasted with a trail of bishops and archbishops who either ignore, or refuse to accept, the men’s testimonies. In a segment on similar cases in Ireland, former Archbishop of Dublin (now Cardinal Desmond Connell), bats away journalists who ask why he didn’t react sooner to reports of abuse. “I’ve a lot to do,” he says. Gibney takes on the Church as though it were a corporation. Cardinal Ratzinger enters as Prefect of the Confederation for the Doctrine of the Faith (that’s the Inquisition, to you and me) in 1981. During this time he requested that every new sex abuse case came to his desk. In 1997, he asked the Pope to dismiss him from the role, hoping to become an archivist and librarian in the Vatican Library. John Paul refused. Ratzinger has made a number of notable apologies for the sex abuse crisis, but judging by the cases cited in the film, they were too little, too late.

It is not only clergy that have silenced abuse in the Church. As one Irish interviewee recalls: “They were bearers of the sacrament - when the priest walked by we would get down on our knees and bless ourselves.” The parish priest provides closeness with God through the Eucharist, a super-natural institution which is fast-rooted and unlikely to become unstuck any time soon. When priests are attacked, the church authorities are so blinded by the need to protect clerical sanctity, they fail to fully recognise that damage they have done.

Crucially, the film does not engage with the rule of clerical celibacy. Though there are records of priests continuing to marry until the eleventh century (a little Bible study: Matthew 8:14, “And when Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever”), the film quotes a manuscript which suggests a case of abuse in the third century. This is misleading and divorced from any context. It suggests that abuse has been endemic from the origins of the church, which it probably has, but only because paedophilia is a universal problem.

Of course, sexual contact with children is not only a sin, but a punishable crime. When he found out he was dying, Bob Bolger, one of the abused from St John's, set off to track down Murphy, who was then living in peace near Lake Superior. He asked Murphy to turn himself in. The priest refused, and was never defrocked. He died in 1998. A lady named Grace repeatedly questions Bolger, as Murphy sneaks inside: “Are you a Catholic?” Over and over she asks him, “Are you a Catholic?” It was reminiscent of Larry David being asked whether he was a Jew because he was whistling Wagner. "How could you do this to your own?" the argument goes.

Criticism from outside the Church is often assumed to be motivated by anti-Catholicism. David Pierre of the Catholic World Report has called Gibney’s film a “tool to advance a nasty anti-Catholic agenda.” But this is not fair. The film is not perfect, but it does something the Church has repeatedly failed to do: it puts the victims first. One cannot help but wonder whether Ratzinger has seen it. Most likely not, but given his expertise on the subject, perhaps retirement seemed most prudent given the circumstances. Mutatis mutandis.