Film Review: Mea Maxima Culpa

On Monday night I was in a pub with my eldest sister and in the most natural flow of conversation she repeated from memory, quite faultlessly, the Patrick Kavanagh poem “Iniskeen Road: July Evening”.

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

She started school in the middle 1970’s and went through primary and then third level in Catholic institutions. She is a testimony to the tremendous thing that a Catholic education can be. She is wise and learned and open and utterly rooted to the sensibility of valuing banks and stones and every blooming thing.

I had a very different education and as a result, I do not have the words of Kavanagh or the Bard on my tongue like she does. I can quote the Simpsons fairly well, though. One thing that is learned off by heart (a beautiful phrase that reminds us that the iambic pentameter mimics the rhythm of the human pulmonary system) is the Confiteor. As a result, even though I have all kinds of doctrinal beef with the idea of asking the blessed Mary ever-virgin to pray for me, in my morning prayers I find myself caught up again reciting these words:

I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
so I ask the blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
and all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.

As a child I was taken by the completeness of the prayer. Through my thoughts and words, through my actions and through my inactions – this is a prayer that honours human agency. I wouldn’t have put it like that. It probably just pricked my conscience about the times I saw other boys picking on people and I didn’t do anything to stop it.

As a man, I am taken by how it pairs that responsibility for our actions that seems almost burdensome with an appeal to the community to hold me accountable. How good an idea it is to ask my brothers and sister to pray for me.

I realise now that I learned a simpler form of the prayer. The Confiteor-lite that I was taught lacked the following lines:

through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;

I prefer the version I learned. One can protest too much. One can confess too much, believe it or not. There is a refusal to sit within God’s grace that can be revealed by how profusely we condemn ourselves. Sin is a tricky bastard. It can get you, even while you are owning up to being gotten by it.

As a man, I know what “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” sounds like in Latin. It sounds like this:

mea culpa, mea culpa,
mea maxima culpa.

And so I come to this movie I watched this morning. Mea Maxima Culpa is a documentary by the award winning film-maker Alex Gibney. It discusses the particular case of shocking sexual abuse within a school for deaf children run in the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee. If you are one of the people who happen by this website sometimes who are a church leader, lay or ordained, Catholic or Protestant, European or American, or in any other way connected to the church: I plead with you to watch this movie.

Mea Maxima Culpa

The important thing about this movie is the good stuff of this movie. What is so important about this film is that it allows the victims to speak. That they do so in sign language is even more affecting. Their suffering will not be silenced. This movie is not without faults but it deserves and needs to be watched because it gives the voice of the victim a chance to be heard.

These men speak with such brave and clear voices about the things they suffered that one cannot but be moved. The same patterns that we see in sex abuse of children across society is evident here again. They all had a disability. The abuse happened in a way that prevented them from easily informing their parents. The abuse happened at the hands of a figure meant to be trusted. The abuse centred on those who were especially vulnerable.

There should be compulsory courses taught in seminary, where the men and women who will lead churches are confronted with such testimony. Theologians should be reminded of such suffering before they stand up to deliver lectures on pristine ecclesiology. The reality of what has happened across the globe must indent to the very core of our self-understanding.

Paraphrasing one of the victims, it is clear that Jesus loved children and that children loved him and were safe with him. That this has not been true and still is not universally true in our churches – this is a scandal we cannot stop talking about. The voices of the victims are voices we cannot stop listening to.

There is much to fault in this movie. It is rampantly anti-Catholic. Yet before I list the ways in which the movie strays from truth in pursuit of an agenda, let me make an apology for anti-Catholicism.

Remember that I write this as a committed ecumenist, who studies day by day in a Catholic seminary, loves (in a complicated way) the Catholic church and longs to see it flourish. I offer an apology for this film’s anti-Catholicism because I am pro-Catholic.

The reason I make this seemingly paradoxical claim is that this film’s strong bias and clear agenda reveals a further fact we cannot forget: there is good reason to despise the church.

Jesus said that the world will hate his followers and spit at them and persecute them. It is a logical fallacy to believe that if you are hated, spat at or persecuted, you must therefore be following Jesus closely. You could be hated, spat at and persecuted because you are committing horrendous crimes.

It is indisputable that the Catholic church has been home to such horrendous crimes. It appears, with the best of intentions towards the church, that it has sheltered horrendous criminality. If the victims hate the perpetrators, it is not pastorally or theologically true to simply call on them to forgive and forget, to put it behind them.

Christ calls those who follow him to forgive those who sin against them. That applies to those who are the victims of sex abuse. But reciting that doctrinal truth doesn’t produce psychological reality. That process of forgiveness, if it is to be authentic, is subterranean, below the surface of things, in the very heart of the soul. Even if a victim dedicates their spiritual life towards it, that process of forgiveness might still be firmly in the territory of hate even to their dying day.

And if a wonder of God is displayed, and a victim can forgive, the perpetrator remains a recipient of GRACE. They have no right to claim forgiveness. They can only expect to receive hate. The gracious economy of the Kingdom can not be perverted into a transactional procedure.

So when we encounter hatred in the face of victims or from those who advocate for victims, this is the way it is! This is how things are! The church will be hated because the church did not do what it is in the essence of the church to do – protect children.

So do not despise and neglect and ignore the voices that you can categorise as having an agenda against you and your ecclesial tradition. Hear them! Hear the Spirit’s call in them! As Barth said:

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does.

It is perfectly in keeping with the character of the God we worship that he would bring us the truth we need for this day out of the mouth of those who can be cast as our enemies. This film is anti-Catholic. That is all the more reason to watch it.

Having made my apology for the film’s anti-Catholicism, I now make my defence of Catholicism.

This film’s anti-Catholic bias obscures its own intentions. It wants justice for the victims. It becomes unjust in its pursuit of that justice. It claims a vast conspiracy. Such a narrative is digestible to contemporary culture and is re-tellable in courts so as to win judgements. But there is no evidence of a vast conspiracy that implicates Pope Benedict XVI. The true story is more complicated and less satisfying and it is utterly hidden from the viewer.

Instead we have old tricks, trotted out with predictable regularity. One would get the impression, watching this, that Ratzinger was promoted from obscurity when John Paul II made him the head of the CDF. That he was bishop of one of the most important seats in Germany, a theological superstar and a key mover at Vatican II – as well as a long standing friend of the Polish Pope – all this is hidden. Instead we get gruesome images of the Inquisition and the utterly irrelevant fact that the modern day CDF can be traced back to the Inquisition. The history of the Inquisition is not interrogated at all, it is just assumed we know how bad those lads were.

Such nods, winks and allusions to common but completely unfounded popular anti-Catholic prejudice makes up the majority of the case against “the Vatican” in this film.

In other words, when it takes its eye off the victims and steps into the role of prosecutor, it gets badly lost.

Errors that look malicious abound. Benedict gave a famous interview on an airplane a few years ago where he discussed the child abuse scandals, particularly here in Ireland. He is shown commenting, in obvious distress, on his confusion about how priests could do such things. The commentator in the movie, Robert Mickens, points out that the Pope’s first thought was the office of priesthood, not the victim. His thoughts on priesthood may have been chronologically first, but a few seconds later his thoughts move on and he clearly states himself what takes logical first place. The Pope said on that airplane, into a microphone, in front of cameras, “Our first priority must be the victims.” The movie even shows this clip. But the narrative is out of whack. Sense is not conveyed. Truth is distorted.

Only in 2001 did the CDF become involved directly in child abuse allegations and that was at the request of Ratzinger. Since then, and through his papacy, he had read every allegation personally. A former Canon lawyer says at one point in the movie, “Cardinal Ratzinger is the most knowledgeable person in the world on the abuse of minors.” Surely this is wonderful! Things are changing! The Pope takes this seriously!

Instead, the movie conveys this fact as if it is sinister.

Only in 2001 did the CDF become involved directly in child abuse allegations and yet the movie obscures that fact as well. The film talks constantly of “the Vatican”. If a documentary on American politics spoke all the time of “the American government” without paying attention to the three distinct branches and the competing interest groups within those branches, it would be considered blatantly untrustworthy. That the Papacy is separate from the Curia – that the Curia is segmented into different offices – none of this is clear or evident because to describe such complexity undoes the conviction of the argument.

Mick Peelo, a well known Irish religious journalist claims at one point that “We [the Irish] were 95% practising Catholics.” This sentence is such an exaggeration that I wonder how anyone who wasn’t just talking off the top of their heads after a few pints could ever make it. If such spin stays in, what is being kept out? This film gets sloppy when it lets its bias show.

And this is all the more reason why Christians – the kind of passionate, dogmatic, conservative Christians who get excited about creeds and liturgy or evangelism and Spiritual gifts – Christians should be making films like this.

A thought experiment: If the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was implicated in the Northern Irish conflict more deeply than we could ever have thought and a Catholic and Anglican film-making team came along and put a spotlight on it, would they be:

  1. Sectarian profiteers out to boost their particular brand of Christianity.
  2. Foolish forgers of disunity.
  3. My brothers and sisters in Christ who take sin seriously and know it is always liberating to have our sin exposed.

When we refrain from calling out such rotten violence hiding under the pretence of holiness we are not serving unity, we are not living in the values of the Kingdom! In fact, we’re living as if God is not sovereign and it is our responsibility to make ourselves clean.

Jeremiah’s words are true for us when we instinctively withdraw from casting light on church corruption lest we create a fuss:

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace

Let us dress these wounds seriously! The only way to bring health to our churches is to address the toxicity in the body! The shame of this film is not that it is aggressively opposed to the church in its bias. It is that it had to be made by people who were not in the church.

I have an internet-friend who is one of the finest writers I have ever read. How cool is that? Her name is D.L. Mayfield. I’ve never met her and probably never will. But when she puts words into paragraphs, ideas move around and truth is revealed.

Yesterday she wrote about the emerging child abuse scandal in a prominent American Reformed evangelical movement called Sovereign Grace Ministries. She wrote:

Now is the time to be honest about the potential for abuse, even in our sacred institutions. Now, more than ever, is the time to recognize traumas encountered by so many within our world and communities, to seek out reconciliation that is holistic and justice-oriented, to give weight to the voices of the vulnerable that currently aren’t being heard.
Otherwise, we are living in a very false peace—one that will eventually be uncovered as darkness.

This problem is not a “Catholic” problem. This problem will express itself wherever power is not made accountable. This problem will not be fixed by protocols and procedures (although they are essential). This problem demands that average, everyday members of churches stand up and demand investigations whenever accusations are made.

False accusations are made. Actually, they are depressingly common. My favourite priest growing up was removed from ministry for years under a groundless accusation. But I would rather my name tarnished, and my ministry obstructed, than have a culture spread where abuse can happen.

This is our problem. Watching this movie will annoy you because of its excesses, but it will bring you into contact with victims telling their story. That is hard to hear. This is why you should watch it.

Your Correspondent, Apologises for verbosity