After Spotlight, revisit 2012’s look at abuse in the Catholic Church, Mea Maxima Culpa

Spotlight fans interested in a deeper, survivor-led exploration of the extent of abuse in the Church would do well to watch Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

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“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” These are the words of Stanley Tucci’s character, attorney Mitchell Garabedian, in the Oscar-nominated film Spotlight. It’s a sentiment that runs throughout the film, which centres on four journalists working at the Boston Globe in 2001, as they attempt to uncover the extent of sex abuse crimes committed by priests of the Catholic Church.

The film follows their mounting horror as they uncover more and more people were involved in the abuse, both directly and indirectly: their estimates of priests abusing children in the local area climb from seven to thirteen to ninety, their geographical understanding of the scope of the problem broadens from Boston, across the United States, all the way to the Vatican.

It focuses on the journalistic efforts involved in bringing this disturbing scandal to light, so while it deals sensitively with interviews with victims, it never fully explores the impact of abuse on the individual, or forensically explores the full extent of the Church’s crimes.

Audience members interested in a deeper, survivor-led exploration of the extent of abuse in the Church would do well to watch Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, available in the UK on Netflix. It focuses on the first known protest against clerical sex abuse, told primarily through a series of subtitled or dubbed interviews with four deaf men, Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski, all of whom were abused by their teacher Father Lawrence Murphy at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee in the 1960s.

This particular focus on deaf victims exemplifies tropes of abusive behaviour we already know to be true: targets are selected and groomed to stay silent by individuals in positions of power and trust. Arthur Budzinski recalls, “He was a hearing man who could sign, and sign really well. I remember looking at him, and thinking, ‘wow’”.

Gary Smith notes that in his case, this reached extremes. “It was hard for me to communicate with my father, and so my dad would speak, and Father Murphy would interpret. My father never wrote back and forth, because I didn’t know how to write well, so I depended on Father Murphy and the nuns to communicate with my father.”

The man who abused him was his primary channel of communication with the outside world, even his own family. Terry Kohurt adds, “He was like a second father to me.”

Mea Maxima Culpa follows Terry, Gary, Bob and Arthur’s struggle to have their experiences recognised by society, even from childhood: Arthur explains how he tried to tell a visiting priest about Father Murphy’s abuse, but was ignored. Reunited as adults, they are insistently ignored and demeaned by the institutions designed to protect them-from their old school, to the police, to the Church itself-taking matters into their own hands by leafleting the area with home-made wanted posters, and even confronting Murphy at the home he used to lure them to. Their fight to have these atrocities acknowledged spans decades.

The documentary also serves as a detailed and wide-ranging look at systemic clerical abuse, examining cases in the US, Ireland and Italy. It narrates the Church’s knowledge and handling of child abuse throughout the 20th century, the explosion of attention following the Boston Globe stories in 2002, and the ramifications of the scandal over the next ten years. There are names that you’ll recognise from Spotlight (Richard Sipe, above, the ex-priest who first suggests to the Spotlight team that 6% of priests are abusive, is a valuable voice in this documentary), but many more that you won’t.

But even as it offers an expansive and thorough narrative of the Church’s crimes, Mea Maxima Culpa never forgets the survivors at its heart. Terry, Gary, Arthur and Bob’s achievements are never underestimated. As Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times’s National Religion Correspondent who followed the case, puts it, “The idea of a group of deaf men leafletting the cars outside of a cathedral with a wanted poster of a priest, at a time when nobody suspected priests of wrongdoing, not to mention sexual abuse, and trying to shout, and to warn: that just bowled me over.” More than 25 years after they first shed light on their traumatic experiences, Terry, Gary, Arthur and Bob have become a compelling demonstration of the value of speaking out. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.