Silence in the House of God: Mea Maxima Culpa


By now most of us are aware of the sexual abuse happening within the Catholic church. It seems every second news story concerns yet another “Pedo Priest” scandal and subsequent cover-up by the church. Alex Gibney’s latest documentary traces this pattern back to some of the first victims to speak out against this unchecked abuse of power.

Silence in the House of God centers around Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who taught at St. John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee from 1950-1974, and molested over 200 boys in the process. In the mid-60s four of these young men decide to speak up about his ongoing offenses against children. First, following in the activist spirit of the times by handing out flyers, then as the years passed, by eventually suing the church, all to no avail. As has been evidenced, the church looks after its own. Father Murphy is merely transferred to another parish (where he continues with his predilections) and after many years and numerous suits against it, the church simply declares bankruptcy.

While the main focus of the film is the Milwaukee case, it also covers similar occurrences in Ireland and Italy. In Dublin there is the Elvis-impersonator priest who committed an equally brutal amount of sex crimes and was protected by the church. In regard to the Vatican it goes into detail on the previous Pope’s knowledge of all pedophilic priests, in part due to his last post as Cardinal where he received data on every molestation case, and his unwillingness to do anything. There is mention of plans set into motion in the 70’s, but canceled by the Pope at the last minute, to buy an island where all boy-loving priests would be sent to live an isolated monastic life. An interesting character that pops up is known as The Fixer. His job being to travel the country paying off victims families and transferring priests in order to save that good Catholic name.

While it could be said that the film isn’t really covering ground that hasn’t already been covered by other documentaries (Deliver Us from Evil) and numerous journalistic investigations, I think what makes it a standalone document is the fact that Murphy was preying on deaf children. It speaks to the empathetic side of the viewer and makes it all that much more horrific. These boys were unable to communicate often even with their own families as none could sign, so Murphy was their only connection to the world. Seeing these now elderly men fervently signing about their suffering at his hands is truly an experience, I’d never understood sign language could be so emotional.

Via a combination of photographs, grainy super-8 footage, and talking heads Alex Gibney has constructed a hard-hitting document that one is unable to turn away from. One scene in particular where during the 90’s a few of the men take a video-camera and film themselves traveling to Murphy’s cabin where they confront him head-on with his acts is genuinely painful to watch.

  • Closed captions for the hearing impaired
  • Tony Jones interview with director Alex Gibney from ABC1’s LATELINE. (Approx 10 minutes)

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