Alex Gibney seems to be everywhere these days. The astonishingly prolific Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker (“Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room”) recently made waves at Sundance with “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” which screened to rapt audiences and unsurprisingly drew criticism from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's legal team.
In “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in The House of God,” which premieres on HBO on Feb. 4, Gibney turns his attention away from corporate greed and freedom of information to child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, offering a fresh take on an old story by examining widespread, historical abuses through the eyes of a now-grown group of silent victims: former students at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., who for years were terrorized by the school's beloved headmaster, Father Lawrence Murphy.
Between 1950 and 1974, Father Murphy routinely raped and molested the deaf students at this boarding school in a Milwaukee suburb, often strategically targeting those students whose parents could not communicate in sign language -- making it impossible for the boys to share their secret with a trusted adult who could speak out on their behalf.
A handful of Murphy's victims, now in middle age but still deeply traumatized, gave candid, chilling accounts of the abuse and their desperate, sometimes cruelly thwarted struggle to expose the priest's criminal activities. From there, Gibney takes us to the Vatican to expose the Catholic Church's sophisticated and willful coverup of clerical sex abuse, a web of silence that reaches far beyond the Holy See and persists in protecting the abusers instead of the innocent children who continue to be victimized.
On Thursday, Gibney spoke to IBTimes about what he discovered in making “Mea Maxima Culpa" (which translates to "my most grevious fault" in Latin), sharing his thoughts on why the Catholic Church has been so reluctant to come clean on clerical abuse and what, if anything, we can expect to see change in the Vatican. He also spoke about what it's like to be the busiest documentary filmmaker working today, and gave us a little tease about the top-secret Lance Armstrong documentary currently in the works.
IBTimes: There are so many stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Was there a particular reason you chose to focus on these deaf boys?
Gibney: That just happened to be part of the story. I didn't realize until I got into it just how impactful [their deafness] would be. It was a more egregious abuse of power, since Murphy would go after children whose parents couldn't sign. Obviously we were playing with a lot of silences in the title.
One of the challenges Father Murphy's victims faced was the inability to tell a trusted adult what was happening to them. Not only could some not communicate with their parents in sign language, at least one of your subjects talked about his limited ability to read or write. Is it common for some deaf people to struggle with literacy?
You can be quite fluent in American Sign Language and not be fluent in reading and writing American English -- they are two different languages.
Gary Smith, one of the former students who spoke of his difficulty communicating in writing, filed a civil lawsuit in 1975 against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about the abuse he suffered at the hands of Father Murphy. Yet a short time later, he signed a document -- that he couldn't fully comprehend -- retracting the allegations and offering his apology. Why did he sign it?
He didn't have an independent signing interpreter to translate the document for him, because he trusted the person who explained the document to tell him the truth. [Gibney is referring to a nun at St. John's, who was primarily responsible for misleading Smith into signing the document.]
How did your subjects who were Murphy's victims respond to seeing “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” for the first time?
They saw it for the first time in Toronto [the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, this past November]. It was difficult for them to see. A lot of them were crying. But I think they were gratified in the end. They are committed to protecting the children [who are still at risk for victimization]. They really feel good about speaking out.
We are a lot more sensitized to these issue than we were back then. The community around deaf children is so much more educated. And we have made progress in terms of how we see figures of authority.
For anyone who has been following the numerous cases of clerical sexual abuse, I think it might be easy to come away with the sense that sexual abuse is almost systemic to the Catholic Chruch. I believe Richard Sipe [a former Benedictine monk turned scholar, who counseled abusive priests and has written extensively on the break of the celibacy vow] even says as much, and "Mea Maxima Culpa" does seem to reinforce this notion that the threat of sexual abuse is very significant. Do you feel that high-profile cases like these skew people's perspective, and suggest that a bigger majority of Catholic priests are abusers or potential abusers than is the reality?
Richard Sipe was saying it was systemic in the sense that abusers are allowed to exist without proper scrutiny. He did a report for the Catholic Church about the sex lives of priests -- he discovered that over 50 percent of Catholic priests have sexual lives. But that doesn't mean those are all deviant sexual lives.
Look at Penn State, and BBC, with the Jimmy Savile scandal. Predators do abound, in places outside of the church. The problem is that the Catholic Church has at its heart a culture of secrecy.
I hadn't realized what a critical role, and for how long, Pope Benedict [former Cardinal Ratzinger] has played in this ongoing sex abuse scandal. "Mea Maxima Culpa" explains how the current Pope is probably more knowledgeable than anyone about the nature and extent of clerical sex abuse throughout the decades, since for many years he has been the sole gatekeeper of any files related to priest abuses. Yet, while Ratzinger is clearly culpable for allowing abuses to continue, he comes across in your film as a deeply conflicted character, and there is a suggestion he would like to do more about it. Would you agree with that impression?
Definitely. Ratzinger tried for years to hold to account [Father Marcial Maciel] Degollado [a notorious perpetrator of sexual abuse who bought influence over the Vatican through high-ticket fundraising], but was stymied by Pope John Paul II -- who doesn't come across well in the film at all. The sad fact of Pope Benedict is that he didn't follow through. He didn't have the courage of his convictions. Indeed, he is a prisoner of the system himself -- the system is more concerned with the reputation of the church than the well-being of the victims. ... but the fear of scandal that permeates the church just leads to even greater scandal.
I read in an another interview that said none of this can ever be resolved unless the church releases the documents it has on clerical sex abuse. Do you think the Catholic Church will ever change the way it approaches, and covers up, priestly abuse?
To say that there haven't been any changes isn't right. Bishops have insisted on changes. ... but even then, abuses continue. The biggest crime is the Catholic Church's refusal to come clean on this issue. Where is the Truth & Reconciliation commission? Where is the responsibility to come forward and disgorge documents because it is the right thing to do? There are a lot of files that probably have to do with abuse that is going on right now.
Why do you think the church refuses to come clean?
I don't know. I don't think they are motivated to. ... Only when the church is turned inside out by its members will things change. Then the Vatican won't be able to hold on anymore.
You are often referred to as one of the hardest-working and most prolific documentarians working today, and you certainly seem to have an unusual ability to juggle a number of different projects at the same time. How are you able to switch gears?
I do it by standing on the shoulders of very talented people. While I move from project to project, I have a dedicated small staff on each film who work on that film only, so that they are not conflicted. ... My staff is small in size but enormous in its contribution.
Speaking of prolific, you have a Lance Armstrong documentary in the works, set for 2013 release. Anything you can tell us about it? Do you have Armstrong's cooperation?
We are working very hard on it, that's all I can say. ... And yes, Armstrong has been involved.
Ellen Killoran is the Media & Culture Editor at IBTimes. She previously contributed to The L Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, and The Daily, and co-produced the HBO...