It was the children’s eyes that hit home. The eyes of young deaf boys who, for the first time, had seen their new school St John’s School for the Deaf in Wisconsin and were beguiled.
“When I first entered St John’s, I loved it. The campus at that school was beautiful. Such magnificent stonework. It was like a castle. I loved that school,”” recalled Gary Smith who was four years old when he went there in 1954.
“Our school had a magnificent stature of Jesus Christ with his hands lovingly placed on the heads of two children. I could see that Jesus loved children and that children loved Jesus too.”
Other children recalled the happiness of being around their peers, deaf children the same age as themselves and when they were at Mass, some of them felt as if they were in heaven.
For Gary Smith, Bob Bolger, Terry Cohut and Arthur Budzinski – and literally hundreds more – heaven turned into hell due to Father Lawrence Murphy.
Now in their 50s, the four tell their stories in Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Gibney’s new film, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, the children’s eyes now residing in the features of middle-aged men as they talk about the depravity they suffered at the hands of one of the Church’s worst abusers. They would forever see those dark events, even with their eyes closed.
Because they are deaf, their words are spoken by actors but more than the words, the force of their story comes through their facial expressions, the eyes that saw the paedophile priest come silently into the darkness of their dormitory to abuse his helpless victims and the eloquent signing.
What affected me most was when one of the men said that Fr Murphy deliberately chose children whose parents
could not sign. That way the youngsters couldn’t tell their parents what was happening to them. Being deaf and dumb, they couldn’t communicate what was happening behind the doors that were closed as the parents drove off.
Until they grew up, that is.
The four decided to tell the world the truth about Lawrence Murphy and made the first known protest against clerical sexual abuse in the United States.
Gibney’s film follows the story from that decision in 1972 and, in a pattern we know has been replicated in countless numbers of cases, the reaction was to blame the victims, to buy them off, and/or to silence them by whatever means possible while at all time, shielding the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
The treatment of the victims is contrasted with the likes of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of The Legion of Christ who sexually abused numerous underage seminarians. Maciel was a hugely successful fund-raiser for the Church and a favourite of John Paul II but who was denounced by the Vatican immediately after John Paul’s death for creating a system of power that enabled him to lead an “immoral” double life “devoid of scruples and authentic religious sentiment.”
(This is echoed by the report of Cardinals Julián Herranz, Jozef Tomko and Salvatore De Giorgi as reported in the Italian newspaper, la Repubblica, which talks of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican which, the paper suggests. was one of the reasons why Pope Benedict is standing down.)
Mea Maxima Culpa points out that for 25 years, the former Archbishop Ratzinger was head of the office which dealt with the worst cases of clerical abuse. the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. In 2001, Ratzinger put out a teaching, approved by John Paul II, which said that every sex abuse case involving a minor, should all go through his desk.
There is no-one in the Catholic Church more knowledgeable about clerical sex abuse and allegations thereof, than Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI,
Although much of Mea Maxima Culpa will surprise very few who have taken an interest or have been affected by clerical abuse, the eloquence of the deaf victims and the added insight it gives into the networks of power and influence at the top of an organization which seems to be suffering from a siege mentality, in a state of denial and in increasing internal turmoil, all making it a film not to be missed, a film that will arouse strong emotions in all who see it.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, recent winner of the IFTA award for Best Feature Documentary, is running at Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast from today until 28 February. It was partly made by Belfast-based TV company, Below the Radar.
William Crawley, from BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, will be introducing the film on Friday 22 February at 6.30pm.