The Priestly State
“I was four in 1954, and I really loved being at school. I liked being in the dorm, the dorm was cooler than being at home with my parents because I didn’t have any siblings.” Gary Smith’s recollection of his early days at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee begins sweetly, accompanied by old photos of adorable little boys, crowded onto a stairwell and gathered, in their pajamas, before a stained glass window. Smith’s story seems confirmed by the images, by the poses and the smiles.
Other former students at St. John’s share similar initial memories and pictures. And then Arthur Budzinski describes his arrival at the school. “I couldn’t stop crying,” he says, I was looking up a nun, she was wearing her white and black robes. I was looking at the nun, and my parents left.” Here the gently plinking piano at the start of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God stops. And you’re left with silence on the soundtrack while the camera pushes close to a boy in a white shirt and tie: he holds a candle and his head is surrounded by a circle of little white hearts. The shot cuts out, to a full look at the polaroid, with white serrated edges (marked “May 1958”), to show young Arthur and another boy are posing together next to a table adorned with a little porcelain Jesus and more candles, as well as construction paper letters: “Come Jesus Come.”
As Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” sets in, Mea Maxima Culpa lays out what’s wrong with this picture, so apparently charming. It shows how the men’s memories are in fact filled with trauma, embodied and enacted by Father Lawrence Murphy, who abused some 200 boys at St. John’s from 1950 to 1974. He appears in a color photo, smiling and casually leaning against a doorframe, glancing to his left, at off-screen. It’s impossible to know at what or whom he might be looking, but already, amid the descriptions of incense and “magnificent stonework,” ceremony and community, the priest stands out. “Murphy would hug children,” Terry Kohut says. “He was a hearing man who could sign, he could sign very well,” adds Burzinski. “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really impressive.’”
Murphy used this ability to devastating ends. Screening now at the Film Forum in New York and airing on HBO in February 2013, Alex Gibney’s documentary reveals that Murphy preyed on boys who couldn’t communicate their experiences to other adults, including their parents, many of whom were hearing and cold not sign. As the director of St. John’s, Murphy had access and authority; as an emblem of the Roman Catholic Church, he also had protection—for decades.
The film considers the system that not only provided opportunity for abusers like Murphy, but also developed a remarkable structure, premised on silence and fear. Survivors’ stories surfaced in the 2000s, generating controversy and horror, but the abuse and the circulation of abusers, relocated by the Church and so, kept secret, went on for decades before then, according to documents uncovered by lawsuits and testimonies by survivors. According to Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and clerical therapist who has studied celibacy in the priesthood, “They know that celibacy is not practiced.” Sipe goes on, ““By ‘they,’ I mean Vatican authorities, I mean bishops, I mean religious superiors. The higher they go, the more they know. You may not be keeping your celibacy, but as long as it’s secret, it’s okay.”
It’s okay. The film cuts between Sipe’s deeply lined visage and faceless reenactments of sacred rituals, as he describes a chilling connection between the institution and the abuse, in that a priest’s “belief in his own goodness can transform a perversion into a holy act.” Indeed, the film reports, Murphy developed “complex justifications for his crimes,” indicated in a therapist’s “handwritten notes,” floating over frames showing still other reenactments, a priest standing over a boy’s sleeping form: “I thought if I’d play around with a kid once per week they would have their needs met,” or, “I thought I was taking their sins on myself, or still again, “It was sex education for them. They were confused about sex.”
Even as you might be pondering who’s confused here, or how this individual was so delusional concerning his own behavior and motivation, the film goes on to present a case that’s even more alarming, that is, the institutional context for such delusion. As Mea Maxima Culpa shows, Murphy—who died in 1998—was but an early and pattern-setting example. For not only was he allowed to continue preying on children (“Creeping into our room like a ravenous wolf,” as one survivor puts it) as well as cultivating helpers, older victims who then abused younger boys to prepare them for Murphy, but he was also protected by an institution that put its interests—its good name, its definitions of loyalty and faith, and its bank accounts—before those of victims.
And so, the pathology of the abuser is multiplied many times over, as children are traumatized and not heard, punished and not believed, again and again, while Church officials managed their pedophiles, relocating them to other parishes, sending them to treatment, and even, for a time during the 1950s, to a single site, where they were monitored by the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete. Founded by Father Gerald Fitzgerald in 1947, the order assumed the abusers could not be cured, that “You cant stop them, but you can contain them” (Fitzgerald’s hope to house them on an island colony off Grenada never came to pass, though the congregation did treat some 2000 priests with methods ranging from psychiatric to penal. Documents uncovered since indicate that many of these offenders were returned to parish service, despite Fitzgerald’s concerns that they were unrehabilitated,
The predominant course has been less focused on treating predators—or survivors, for that matter—than on “containing” the problem, with a particular commitment to protect the Vatican. Since 2002, when legal cases and media coverage exploded in Boston, approaches have changed, but, the film points out, early versions of protest and efforts to expose the devastation remain models of outrage and self-expression. Several of the boys at St. John’s, the film reveals, took to making flyers and leaving them on windshields in the parking lot, hoping to engender upset or at least awareness of Father Murphy’s crimes.
Today, attorneys still use and seek public exposure, though the Church, from local instances up to the Vatican, continues to cover up. If it’s fair to say most every point made in the film is harrowing, two stand out. One concerns the decision by Catholic authorities to send Father Murphy into retirement at a farm in Wisconsin. Here, Bob Bolger, one of his victims back at St. John’s, “made a video to memorialize Father Murphy’s crimes,” confronting him with accusations conveyed in combination of gesture and verbal language: if Bolger’s speech is sometimes unclear, his fury is vivid and met by ongoing delusion, as Murphy steps outside to see him: “It was a long time ago,” the old man says, making his way back to his front door. “You talked about this before.” The scene, shot in grainy commercial video, is confounding and tragic, as Murphy makes the film’s case: it was a long time ago, and Bolger did talk about it, and still, the pedophile will, as Bolger puts it, “die free.”
Still, survivors of Murphy’s abuse and that of many other priests around the world pursue transparency, working with other survivors to expose how the system endured for so many years and in so many places. Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer, notes the problem posed by the Vatican as a state, first recognized as such when it cut a deal with Mussolini. Since then, the Vatican has used that status to its advantage, rejecting efforts to access historical records, dismissing questions and doubts, handling—as it were—its own business. It’s not news that, as Prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in charge of this handling—that is, investigating—the burgeoning scandal as it emerged in 2001; still, as he appears here in a brief non-interview, refusing to discuss the scandal (“It is inconvenient to come to me at this moment,” he tells the journalist who approaches him unexpectedly), Cardinal Ratzinger stands in for all the many years of suppression and prerogative.
Now Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger and the Church maintain silence on the general issue of abuse by clergy as well as specific cases, arguing against the transparency that so many survivors are demanding. Mea Maxima Culpa doesn’t lose sight of this idea, using St. John’s as a kind of ground zero (even as it doesn’t argue this is the first instance of abuse and cover-up). This structure allows the boys who knew Father Murphy to tell their stories in detail and in community, despite the Church’s efforts to ignore, dismiss or legally avoid their claims. The past persists, and in Mea Maxima Culpa, it finds powerful expression.