The sexual abuse of parishioners—particularly children—by members of the clergy has become a defining scandal for the Catholic Church, changing the dynamics between priests and their flocks as lay Catholics demand accountability from Rome. But before crises in Boston and other American cities, a group of brave, deaf men in Milwaukee began speaking out in the 1970s about a priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused as many as 200 of them. Mea Maxima Culpa, a new documentary about their experiences and their courage, premieres on HBO at 9PM tonight.
I spoke to Alex Gibney, the Academy Award-winning director of Mea Maxima Culpa about how to record interviews with deaf subjects, the need for transparency in Catholicism, and how the Catholic Church functions like Enron. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I grew up in the Boston area, so I’m familiar with the breadth of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse issues. But I was curious, how did you come to this particular story about clergy sexual abuse when there are so many?
Well, I mean, I grew up in Boston too, for that matter. But actually I came to this story because I read it in the New York Times. What impressed me about it were two things. One was the connection between the Milwaukee story and the policies of the Vatican. That was a revelation that hadn’t been properly known at this point. And two was the heroes at the heart of the story, who I didn’t think had been properly celebrated. We hear a lot about victims. We don’t hear a lot about heroes…
They were protesting forcefully despite their handicap, and despite rather major prejudices towards the deaf. There’s a deposition, as you saw in the film, in which Archbishop William Cousins is asked “Why didn’t you reach out to ascertain whether these allegations of abuse were true for the victims?” And he was like, “The victims were deaf. What would they have to say?”
Do you think that Father Murphy decided to work in the deaf community because he would have access to children who were doubly vulnerable?
There’s a dstinction to be drawn in this film between the pedophiles and the coverup. I regard him as the classic predator. A compulsive sexual deviant who was a predator in the way he went after children. Predators tend to look at places where they can go after their prey as easily as possible. Predators tend to hide in plain sight, in a place where they can have access to a lot of victims. He was the interlocutor between their parents and the kids. That was really terrifying. On the part of Murphy, anyway, I think it was a lot of predatory behavior. But he used the church, and he used his skills. You can’t look at this situation and say Murphy became powerful in the deaf community in order to be able to prey on children. I think he also very much cared about the deaf community and a lot of people in the deaf community supported him because he had raised so much money. I think we have to see this as part and parcel of how predators hide in plain sight.
What do you think that Catholic reformers can learn from this protest about how to change the church and hold it accountable?
The only way to extricate is to expose. Any institution that claims that the only way to protect itself is to cover up crimes isn’t protecting itself, it’s just digging deeper into a culture of criminality. If you’re a company and you discover a culture of criminality in your company, say, Enron, do you cover it up, or do you bring it forward and say our reputation is important, but rooting out crime is even more important, and therefore convincing everyone that your reputation as an upstanding company should be upheld?
Do you see commonalities between the Catholic Church and some of the other institutions you’ve made movies about?
I think that the church is different in some ways. One of the way it’s different is its policy of enforced celibacy…[Priests] take vows of celibacy but routinely violate them…Over 50 percent of prieests have an active sex life. That’s important not for the hypocrisy but for the secrecy it engenders and the blackmail it engenders. That’s one of the things that’s unique about the church.
But what’s not unique about the church is they’re so convinced of their own good deeds that they’re blind to the possibility that they could do any wrong. Enron was so convinced that it was on this mission to save capitalism by coming up with this technologically sophisticated, unregulated capitalism that would save the world. If you have to cook the books in order to make Enron look a little bit better to protect the sanctity of that idea, that’s what you have to do. The Boy Scouts are so good you can’t let a few bad apples damage that. Every institution likes to believe it’s not the values of the insitution, but a few bad apples.
Do you think that organizations with that kind of messianic mission are more vulnerable to bad apple theory? It’s one thing if you make pretty good zipper teeth, it’s another if you think you’re on a mission to save capitalism.
Yes. I think the more holy you think you are, the more prone you are to that kind of noble cause corruption. The nobler the cause, the deeper the corruption…When you see people who have enormously valuable social goals, who are paragons in some ways, it shouldn’t be so surprising to us that they have deep-seated weaknesses. We always think of it as ironic, but I’m not sure it’s ironic. I think it’s part of the package.
At the Television Critics Association press tour, you talked about thinking about how to shoot your subjects, as you put it, “to their best advantage.” I was curious about how you decided on a format, and for the voice dubbing, how you chose which actor’s voice to pair with each man?
We tried to cast it in ways that just seemed intuitiviely right. Sometimes there were rational considerations. Ethan Hawke is a younger actor, so we paired him with the younger survivor, Pat Kuehn. We listened to voices, and we tried to deicde if they made sense for us, what we would have imagined the voices of those people to be based on their looks, their affect. It was a gut thing, an intuitive thing, like Chris Cooper makes sense for Gary [Smith]. We wanted the voices to be distinct. Voiceovers, with deaf men, it’s hard, unless you have voices. I think every time a different person started to speak, we wanted you to hear a difference. They saw them, but they didn’t meet them. We relayed clips to the actors so they could see whose voices they were playing.
What about the stark backgrounds that you shot the men against? Was that to emphasize their use of American Sign Language?
I wanted to unite them in a visual framework. It was very complicated to be able to do the audio recording. I wanted to be able to have a conversation with them and preserve the audio of their grunts, their groans, their clapping. I thought that would be evocative of how difficult it was for them to communicate in a separate world…I was sitting [in a sound recording booth] with the American Sign Language interpreter, so our sounds wouldn’t bleed into the audio recording. We came up with a lighting scheme that seemed dramatic ,but that also seemed to focus your eye on them rather than their surroundings. It was tough to work out. It was very complicated. It looks simple, but it was a big deal, it was very tricky to do.
We also shot them with four cameras. I wanted to be able to have the viewer experience them in a more visceral way, rather than just in a wide angle, which is normally recommended by American Sign Language. I wanted to see the expression of your face, the movement of their hands. With one camera, the so-called A camera, we also did one other thing, which was to use a variable shutter, and that creates a stutter effect, like what happened with Saving Private Ryan, so you can see a flutter of the hands, which makes the hands more prominent. It demands that you raise the intensity of the light rather dramatically. Having done a bunch of tests with other men, we determined this was the best course of action.
Where did you find the interpreters?
We used people with whom the survivors were familiar and comfortable. The woman in Milwaukee, for example, who was well-known to them, is very good. We shot in Minneapolis and we used someone different. When we brought the men to Toronto, this woman, Mala, traveled with them. There were certain interpreters with whom the guys felt comfortable and we were delighted to use them. We had a pool because sometimes we needed more than one. But the primary interpreters were often picked by the men themselves. They just needed to feel confident that what I was saying was being relayed properly to them, and that the nuance of what they were saying was being properly communicated to me.