Out of the blue on Monday, Pope Benedict announced his retirement, giving as his reason, “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” He is stepping down on February 28.
Yet, there’s another story. The new HBO Documentary film by Alex Gibney: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, starts by investigating the secret crimes of Father Lawrence Murphy, a charismatic Milwaukee priest who abused more than 200 deaf children in a school under his control. If that doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will. Murphy’s level of human betrayal and indifference is truly chilling. I’m sure that this excellent profile brought huge pressure on the Church to do something.
Nevertheless, Mea Maxima Culpa scrupulously documented Murphy’s actions, becoming the first known public protest against clerical sex abuse in the U.S., which led to a case that spanned three decades and ultimately resulted in a lawsuit against the pontiff himself. At the heart of the film is a small group of heroes–Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger. These courageous deaf men set out to expose the priest who had abused them, seeking to protect other children, while making their voices heard.
The filmmaker uses the voices of actors Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan and John Slattery to tell the stories of the men abused by Murphy. However, it is the faces and expressions of the courageous deaf men that illustrate the traumatic effect Murphy continues to have on their lives. In addition to the Father Murphy case, the film spotlights similar sex abuse cases in Ireland and Italy.
This helps understand how pedophilia travels through the Catholic clergy. The documentary looks at the large scale problem, tracing it all the way to the top echelon to spread the deserved blame. It is told to us by citing examples. The main example, as mentioned in the second paragraph above, is a powerful one: 200 molested deaf children, who relied on Murphy and his school, to learn to sign, speak and read. They are at the heart of the matter and can easily stand for the still “silent” or suffering, whether as children or adults. Many of them were kept illiterate as well as in sexual bondage.
Certainly, the film is designed to stir up emotions and demand a call for redemption from the Church and the priests themselves. As it stands, the children were and remain the only real victims, who have had to carry the horrific stigma of their violation in their hearts and souls. Yet the priests and the Catholic hierarchy and their abhorrent behavior, from bishops to cardinals to the pontiff himself remain in shadows.
The pontiff we are told gathered every case of priest pedophilia that has taken place over hundreds of years. In terms of a response, little light has been shed on the disease, but billions of dollars in hush money lawsuits abound. Yet, who can put a price tag on the inexorable and historical damage done to those innocents, all those who turned to men like Father Murphy for help as they would a surrogate parent.
That the children’s expectations turned to the kind of relationships they did, still continues to be criminal. Gibney expects the ire if not the horror of the viewers to rise. And it did when I watched Mea Maxima Culpa on the evening of February 4. Also intended by Gibney to remain in the viewer’s mind (and it did for this viewer) is the burning question: why was and still is this betrayal of the innocents allowed to continue? It seems the only rebuttal the Church can muster is that the brilliant film is a one-sided argument. Well, break the silence and we’ll all listen to your side.
As a lapsed Catholic, primarily for an attempted (but failed) violation, I never remembered apologies. Though I have all my senses, I spoke only briefly to my parents about the incident, then pushed it into my memory and never went back to Church again. I was one of the lucky ones.
Fortunately, I was about sixteen when the attempt of seduction was made. Being fairly street-smart I recognized it for what it was. A young Italian priest approached me as I was picking up a prescription in a drugstore, saying he needed my assistance with interpreting a letter written to him in English. A light flashed in my head but I ignored it. When we arrived at his office in the rectory, it turned out to be an offensive inquiry on my locker room recollections of the various sizes of boys’ members while dressing and undressing. The priest used his hands as an air ruler, expanding and contracting them, in one case mentioning black students.
By then, the alarm bell was ringing in my head. For the tenth time I stood, then backed my way out the priest’s rectory study to the wood-framed glass door, as he trailed me, asking me to return. I told him I was due home for dinner. And if I wasn’t there, my father would show me the strap when I got home. Then I quickly pushed open the door and practically leapt down the steps of the stoop, literally gone with the wind. For years, I would go blocks out of the way to avoid seeing the priest or the church, though I heard the priest had been sent to haunt some other church and victims.
This experience didn’t take the 107 minutes that Gibney’s film takes but less than thirty minutes and left me with a sense of deep anger, even panic. In those moments, all those framed pictures of me in my First Holy Communion suit and white armband, or with my parents after my Confirmation were smashed. The anger, even in my 74th year, remains, just as my sympathy for those innocents in that school for the deaf remains. If this seems like a scathing criticism of the Catholic Church and its holy army of perverts, it is just that. That so many years later these offenses against children continue is appalling and testimony to the misandry and misogyny behind it. It works like this . . .
The misandry is based on the continual recruiting of boys for the priesthood. Since the adult priests have sworn to sexual abstinence with women (all cut in the image of the temptress Eve, who led Adam from the Garden of Eden in one sweet bite of the Apple of Knowledge), women are off-limits and that leaves other men to engage with, which is homosexuality, a taboo-word in the extreme. And thus this leaves the adept’s desire to focus on children, boys and girls—and to take these innocents into their confidence for purposes of defiling them.
And all of it, all of it, is swept under the rug into a dusty “silence,” like the dust that settles on a sanctuary. It is the silence concerning the victims’ experience, and the clergy’s criminality. The children hold their trauma in silence and they are silent as some are deaf. The film also explores the seeming silence of the Church as it forever turns a deaf ear, even in its endless meetings of Vatican cardinals, bishops, and priests. The question of why the Church continues to shelter itself in this silence is unanswered. Is the Church asking that parishioners should look the other way? Is the Church imagining these are lambs to be given for slaughter?
Regarding a comment one critic made, “This documentary could and perhaps should have been about any seat of authority that abuses or allows persons to inflict sex abuse upon another, and that could have been about the football coach and the camp counselor as well. Yet, it attacks only the Catholic Church.” Here is the answer.
The Catholic Church is historically the greatest offender. And I’m sure Pope Benedict was both a scholar and historian of the perversion as well as a victim and purveyor, directly and on a larger scale within the scope of his power. So the illness has just now caught up to him and he is so exhausted by it that he must retire by February 28, which is just around the corner. I wish him hell’s bells.
I would advise the pope that this is not just like taking off a Hitler Youth uniform as Joseph Ratzinger did as a young man. Or abandoning his German Army uniform later on when he knew the allies were on their way and he didn’t want to be caught in it. He now stands caught in his latest uniform and leaves the Church behind with still another huge lawsuit, perhaps the largest of all, for those seeking redress, and for those seeking to break the silence like the window of that rectory door I once flew from.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.