Where the Abused are Muted: 'Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God'

In Mea Maxima Culpa survivors of Father Murphy's abuse pursue transparency, working with other survivors to expose how the system endured for so many years and in so many places.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Director: Alex Gibney
Cast: Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn, Arthur Budzinski, Bob Bolger, Richard Sipe, Patrick J. Wall, Laurie Goodstein, Robert MIckens, Terry Kohut, Rembert Weakland, Alex Gibney (narrator)
Rated: NR
Studio: HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-11-16 (Limited release)

"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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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