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Edelstein: Mea Maxima Culpa Strikes the Right Balance Between Sobriety and Sensationalism

Even those of us who labor to work up a smidgen of empathy for evildoers — on the grounds that we can best forestall what we most understand — shrug and reach for the pitchfork when faced by creatures like Milwaukee’s Father Lawrence Murphy, who sexually molested more than 200 deaf children and remained a free man who died of natural causes. But how to begin to understand the Country of Old Men that knew what he was doing and did nothing — for decades — to protect the children in his “care”?

Alex Gibney offers at least some answers in his typically trenchant documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which gets the balance of sensationalism (to make you frothing mad) and sobriety (to make you focus on the underlying connections) just right. He opens with the story of Murphy’s victims, which I’d describe as nightmarish if not for the fact that the “ravenous wolf” that prowled among the beds of sleeping children—none of whom knew if this was the night they’d be touched—was real. He was a cunning predator, too. He gravitated toward students whose parents didn’t know sign language and so had a tougher time communicating what few back then—in the fifties, sixties, and seventies—had the words for. None of the now-middle-aged victims break down on-camera, but even without the celebrity voices (Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, John Slattery), you’d know how to read their gestures. Meanwhile, you look at the photos of Father Murphy and discern nothing.

Bit by bit, the canvas widens to show a priest named Walsh to whom the boys confided and who notified his superiors—and wider still to include the bishops and archbishops and cardinals, until Gibney arrives at the Vatican, which Mussolini made a country in return for the pope’s turning the other cheek to his fascism. It’s at the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”—which at one time oversaw the Inquisition—where claims of molestation went to die.

The film names men whose inaction remains shamefully uncriminalized. But more important than who is “why.” Here, enlightened priests and ex-priests shed insight on the Lifestyles of the Anointed and Faux Celibate, some of whom (pals of popes) were outright gangsters. Beyond the Mafia-like code of silence, it comes down to this: The guys at the top reserved their compassion for priests like Father Murphy in the belief that the boys were young and would get over it. No one of true faith will get over Maxima Mea Culpa.

This review previously ran in the Nov. 19 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: HBO