HBO’s ‘Mea Maxima Culpa’ Lands at Right Time

Variety has already reviewed Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” chronicling years of child molestation that went ignored or was swept under the rug by the Catholic Church.

Meamaximaculpa01Still, the debut of the 107-minute film Feb. 4 on HBO — coming on the heels of revelations regarding the Archdiocese in Los Angeles and the punitive steps taken against former Archbishop Roger Mahony — could hardly be more powerful or timely.

Gibney, who uses a pedophile Milwaukee priest who preyed on boys at a school for the deaf as his foundation for the story, has essentially done for the church what he did for Enron in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.” My only quibble would be in the early going when he uses recreations with a slasher-movie feel to help convey the dread the boys (now old men) faced at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy, who was allowed to continue his activities virtually unchecked until his death.

While I understand Gibney’s intent, with all the available video and the raw power of the first-person testimonials to illustrate his story, it feels unnecessary — and heavy-handed. (It is also unusual for HBO, which, admirably, generally avoids such techniques.)

Beyond that footnote, though, “Mea Maxima Culpa” meticulously chronicles how the church sought to sidestep law enforcement and “treat” such priests through prayer and reassignment, seemingly more concerned about the perpetrators than their victims. In that respect, the church’s deficient sense appears to have been a kind of institutional blindness, one that went all the way to the current pope, Benedict XVI, who prior to his elevation took charge of investigating these cases. (For further context, I’d recommend Frank Bruni’s recent column about the church in the New York Times.)

As my colleague Justin Chang stated, Gibney has woven “a uniquely devastating account of priestly pedophilia into an excoriating indictment of the entire Vatican power structure.” That it is — which is perhaps why I felt compelled to lend one more voice to the chorus, urging people to watch a project that, despite its flaws, deserves to be seen — and heard.


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