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?