The clergy sexual abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church in recent years is not an easy subject to approach dispassionately.
For faithful Catholics, especially those with firsthand knowledge of the wonderful work carried out by the vast majority of upstanding priests, the topic is a source of deep shame and distress. For those alienated from the church, it can provide another reason to keep their distance. And for those intent on curbing the church's moral influence in society, it provides a readymade, pre-emptive weapon with which to short-circuit all debate.
So it's disappointing, though hardly surprising, to find that the documentary "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," which focuses on students molested at a school for the deaf, is a grab-bag in which facts get mixed up with poorly founded accusations and inflated rhetoric. Filmmaker Alex Gibney's uneven study, which had a limited theatrical release last fall, premieres on the HBO pay-cable service Monday, Feb. 4, 9-11 p.m. EST.
Gibney's narrative begins with the straightforward -- and harrowing -- testimony of four men who endured abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, during the late Father Murphy's long tenure (1950-74) on the staff of St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis.
Father Murphy not only took advantage of the isolation brought about by the students' disability -- some had hearing parents who did not use sign language -- he psychologically abused them and profaned the confessional by making it the venue for some of his crimes.
Efforts to reveal Father Murphy's wrongdoing -- and put a stop to it -- were met in what appears to have been a totally inadequate way by local church authorities. Tragically, they may have prioritized the suppression of scandal over the welfare of the children.
While dealing with the initial stages of this specific case, Gibney is on solid ground. But he has a larger agenda: to present the cover-up of this and similar incidents as nothing less than a worldwide conspiracy directed from the highest levels of the church.
In the early 1970s, multiple allegations of sexual abuse against Father Murphy were made to civil authorities, who investigated but never brought charges. He was placed on a leave of absence for a while and later returned to pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Superior, Wis., where he worked until 1993.
Gibney charges that, because a well-meaning fellow priest wrote to the papal ambassador to the United States raising concerns about Father Murphy, "the Vatican" (presumably meaning the pope) must have been aware of the situation.
Given that the Holy See maintains ambassadors in well over 100 nations, and considering the amount of correspondence that must be assumed to flow through each of their offices daily, Gibney's conclusion seems less than obvious.
According to a 2010 Catholic News Service story, the Vatican had learned of the case in the late 1990s, but chose not to laicize Father Murphy despite the recommendation of his bishop. The Vatican told The New York Times that by the time it learned of the case, the priest was elderly and in poor health and suggested that the priest continue to be restricted in ministry instead of being laicized, and he died four months later, in 1998.
In the film, the Vatican is said by one of the survivors be "in control" of every priest and nun in the world. Yet, taken together, that amounts to about 1.1 million people. The decentralized structure of the church, moreover, means that each one of them is primarily responsible to a local bishop or religious superior.
Particularly offensive is the charge that the Catholic theological understanding of each priest as an "alter Christus," that is, another Christ, is a "heresy" -- and the implication that it is used to protect clerical predators from being disgraced. Far from shielding priests, their ability to act in the person of Christ when celebrating the sacraments increases their moral responsibility to represent Christ by imitating his behavior.
Pope John Paul II's beatification is called into question because he -- like many others -- was taken in by Legionaries of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who led a vice-ridden secret life. Father Maciel's influence with the late pontiff also is attributed to his fundraising skills. In reality, it probably had far more to do with the remarkable number of priestly vocations the Legionaries have fostered.
A year after the pope died in 2005, after investigating allegations that Father Maciel had fathered children and sexually abused young seminarians, the Vatican ordered the priest to stop practicing his ministry in public and to live a life of prayer and penitence. Father Maciel died in 2008.
George Weigel, the U.S. biographer of Blessed John Paul, has said there's not a shred of evidence to support the idea that the late pope knew of the abuse and did nothing about it.
In the film, by the time the Mafia term "omerta" is applied to an imaginary code of silence about abuse said to be enforced from Rome, and Australian-born British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson accuses Pope Benedict XVI of "crimes against humanity," all pretense of objectivity has long since been left behind.
Robertson goes on to make the entirely baseless assertion that the Holy See is not entitled to legal immunity because it's a pseudo-nation concocted as part of a deal between Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI.
In fact, the pope became an internationally recognized sovereign over various territories surrounding Rome as far back as the eighth century, making the Papal States -- and their successor entity, the Vatican City State -- arguably the oldest nation in Europe.
The grim record of clergymen who sinfully and criminally betrayed those entrusted to their care -- and of those in the hierarchy who concealed these devastating transgressions -- deserves a far more responsible and balanced examination than it receives here.