TIFF ’12: Gibney on truth and justice in “Mea Maxima Culpa”

Academy Award-winning doc director Alex Gibney (pictured) returns to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with a film telling the story of a group of deaf men who launched one of the first clerical sex abuse protests in the U.S.
September 13, 2012

Academy Award-winning doc director Alex Gibney (pictured) returns to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, with a film telling the story of a group of deaf men who launched one of the first clerical sex abuse protests in the U.S.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which was recently announced as a London Film Festival selection, delves into the controversial subject matter of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, focusing on a case first opened by a group of men coming forward after years had passed since they’d been allegedly abused at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin.

The alleged abuse by Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy of more than 100 children over two decades at the school is at the center of Gibney’s doc, which argues that there was a systematic cover up that went all the way to the current Pope, who had received letters concerning Murphy when he’d headed a council overseeing child sex abuse cases as a cardinal. Murphy was never defrocked as a priest and was never criminally charged for sexual abuse, although the priest did admit to abusing children.

HBO, who funded Gibney’s doc along with other investors, will host the television premiere of the film in early 2013, after a theatrical release.

How did the film come about?

The Wider brothers [Jedd and Todd, producers on the doc] came to me when the Milwaukee tale appeared on the cover of The New York Times, and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing this?’ I thought about it for a few days and I did really want to dig in.

It was also very public and very personal to me, [since] I’d been raised Catholic. It seemed like an opportunity to take a story that would be a mystery tale. By following a particular crime story, you could illuminate something about the bigger kind of crime.

How did you switch gears from your last TIFF debut, The Last Gladiators, to this documentary?

You tackle stories, and one of the interesting things about telling stories is that you take them on their own terms. The Last Gladiators was an interesting tale about a guy who was a very dark subject but turned out [to have] a very inspiring ending. Life is all about variety, I guess.

What were the challenges in making Mea Maxima Culpa?

[One] challenge was to find a way to balance the small story [with] the bigger story. In the cutting room, that proved to be the biggest challenge and I think we finally got it right. There was a certain cinematic quality to the Milwaukee tale that was very important, but it needed to be set within a context of a much bigger story about a cover up, and we had to find a way to make that work structurally.

I think the other challenge was I was entering into a world and a language of the deaf that I didn’t really know much about and I wanted to render it in a way that would both honor that world for the deaf but also make that world approachable for the hearing. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to shoot those interviews with the four deaf guys who are in the film.

Was it hard to get the men to talk about this sensitive matter on film?

They were motivated to do so, [since] they had come forward. Terry Kohut, who is the guy who sued the Pope, had been “John Doe” and wanted his anonymity, but just before we started the film, he decided to come out and bear testimony.

Honestly, they’d been waving their hands, trying to get people’s attention for some time so it was difficult going through that material and difficult going through these experiences for these guys but I think at the same time they really desperately wanted their stories to be told.

After TIFF, where will the film go on the festival circuit?

It will be at London. The U.S. premiere will take place at the Milwaukee Film Festival, which I think will be a very emotional moment for everybody. It’ll also be at a number of other festivals, Chicago [International Film Festival], the Hamptons [International Film Festival], Woodstock [Film Festival], Camden [International Film Festival], and then it’s going to open at the Film Forum in mid-November.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God’s last TIFF screening is Sunday, September 16.


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