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Abuse, neglect, and cover-up

15 February 2013

Stephen Brown sees a documentary-maker's ecclesiastical exposé

Scandal: Arthur Budzinski with a flyer about Fr Lawrence C. Murphy, a child-molester in the United States who died in 1998 (without being unfrocked), in a publicity photo for the filmMea Maxima Culpa

Scandal: Arthur Budzinski with a flyer about Fr Lawrence C. Murphy, a child-molester in the United States who died in 1998 (without being unfrocked)...

THE film Mea Maxima Culpa (Cert. 15), released today, couldn't be timelier. The documentary, subtitled Silence in the House of God, identifies a culture of tacitly accepted sexual abuse in church circles. In the light of continuing revelations regarding Jimmy Savile et al., this may well apply to secular counterparts also.

The picture opens with former boarders at St John's School for the Deaf, Milwaukee, now in their 60s, relating in sign language their experiences of sexual maltreatment by a Roman Catholic priest. From there, the film extends its examination of widespread abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up, concentrating mainly on Ireland, Italy, and other parts of the United States.

Powerful organisations tend to protect their own unless forced to behave otherwise. Exceptionally, Dom Rembert Weakland, on becoming Archbishop of Milwaukee, tried (despite being institutionally thwarted) to act on the petitions of those abused. Late in the film, he suggests that all levels of church hierarchy need to come off their pedestals. Humbled, they can thereby recover a sense of Christ's humanity, and how far they have fallen short of this in regard to vulnerable children.

Oscar-winning Alex Gibney's exposés of the Enron energy company's financial misdealings, and the torture of Afghan prisoners, have made him a director of note. His latest work comes over as meticulous but unsensational. Is this because we, the public, have become case-hardened by a spate of depressing revelations? Perhaps we are no longer surprised that even in the Church such activities occur.

The film hesitates to call it conspiracy. Rather, an attorney who has vigorously campaigned on behalf of victims asserts that canon law effectively colludes with patterns of secrecy and loyalty to the Vatican. Gibney appears to have contacted all parties concerned, although, notably, the Vatican refused any interviews. Some Roman Catholics feel the director treats the abuse cases as a springboard to attack the Church in general. I don't think so. The film makes it clear that the Church is so much more than just those who have been ordained, and that many of its members (including clerics) are fine examples of Christianity.

My own criticism would be that the victims, half a century on, are not given any screen time to detail the long-term effects such violations have had on their lives. The viewer is left to imagine that the real damage cannot begin to be calculated in terms of the monetary compensation that they are at last receiving.


PAUL HILLS's film Do Elephants Pray? (Cert. 15) uses Masheika E. Allen's poem to question our arrogance vis-à-vis other creatures. It sets up a dubious dichotomy whereby the sum of human achievements is equated with nasty-mannered advertising executives, and a reverence for nature is equated with a demented hippie.

Callum (Jonnie Hurn) tries developing a campaign for alcoholic cranberry juice, but his creative get-up-and-go has got up and gone. Nature, abhorring this vacuum, presents him with a quixotic young Frenchwoman, Malika (Julie Dray). The name can mean "angel". Hence her omniscience, with capricious appearances and vanishings.

She introduces him to Lloyd Pye's book Everything You Know Is Wrong, which claims that, among other things, we are genetically engineered aliens. Malika believes that fireflies are fairies, and also in praying to the woods that she and Callum enter. What could have been a reasoned consideration of humanity's alienation from Nature is jeopardised by this nutter who gives tree-hugging a bad name.

The portrayal of "ordinary" urban existence is no less skewed. Marc Warren (best known for his swaggering days in Hustle) heads a parade of grotesques which turns Mad Men into the essence of responsible commerce. One yearns to share Malika's sense of awe and wonder at the Creation - not least because many of us are ill at ease with the old dispensation, as, getting and spending, we lay waste our power. While Callum does come to meditate on the forest's sources of enchantment, this serves only as a springboard to return him to an odious environment. Yet still he dreams of that Roman Catholic world that he once knew, which had meaning.

More of a Thomas Hardy approach might have helped. "The Oxen" recalls the legend that stabled animals kneel each Christmas Eve, acknowledging Christ's birth. The sceptical poet longs to be present on such occasions, "hoping that it might be so". Unfortunately, Do Elephants Pray? doesn't do justice to any such hope. It assigns these notions to a barely comprehensible leading lady, and likewise parodies contemporary office politics.

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