The stories tumble out, a flurry of enraged sign language, celebrity voiceovers and sordid details: Father Lawrence Murphy was a man I trusted when I was a student at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin during the ’50s and ’60s—and he repeatedly molested me. His former students, now grown men, attest to the sexual abuse they suffered at his hands as kids, and how, in 1974, several of them put up flyers in their neighborhoods labeling Murphy a monster. Similar incidents around the globe would be reported as the decades passed. The more this systematic pedophilia within churches was reported, the longer that Catholic authorities labored to keep the shameful epidemic silent.
Alex Gibney’s micro- to macro-study of how this pioneering case represents a vast Vatican conspiracy isn’t the first to tackle the evil that holy men do, but it may be the most ambitious in terms of taking the Pope & Co. to task for such crimes. Which only makes the film’s failure to mount a precise, truly damning bigger-picture examination more frustrating, as other cases are briefly threaded into the narrative without shedding more light on the subject, and some questionably lurid dramatic re-creations come close to undermining the survivors’ moving testimonies. Gibney has proved that he can take on a sprawling, unwieldy subject and synthesize information in a journalistically credible yet accessible way (see Taxi to the Dark Side). That isn’t the case here; noble intentions aside, Mea Maxima Culpa only gets messier the more it tries to iris out to a larger indictment. The central tragedy ends up diluted to a fault.
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