A haunting and frequently shocking expose of child abuse in the Catholic Church, Alex Gibney’s latest film explores an insidious web of corruption and cover up.
Gibney has explored corruption in institutions before (e.g. Enron, the US military) and here he examines the story of four deaf men who were abused by priests in the 1960s before travelling higher up the church.
Interweaving it with other stories, a devastating portrait quickly emerges of a bankrupt institution that has not only shattered people’s lives, but actively sought to conceal wrongdoing at the highest levels.
Intriguingly, Pope Benedict XVI stood down in February around the UK theatrical release and in doing so he became the first Pope to resign in 600 years. Many have speculated that the abuse scandals (that this film partly explores) gave him a good reason to retire.
When he took over in 2005, he immediately had to deal with a situation that led to an explosion of abuse claims and law suits against the church and accusations that the Vatican was complicit in the cover up.
Although films such as Deliver Us From Evil (2006) have covered this subject by focusing on a single figure, Gibney’s film adopts an unusual approach in starting out with Father Lawrence Murphy abusing his pupils at the St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It then gradually follows the trail of abuse into the wider world, which included Tony Walsh, the notorious Irish priest who was also an Elvis personator, Father Marcial Maciel, who was ‘punished’ by being sent out to Florida, and on to the Vatican.
Perhaps worst of all is that the Church not only denied and covered-up many of the cases, it also delayed in punishing paedophile priests and even adopted the policy of posting them to other communities.
At one point there is the utterly surreal revelation that at one point the Vatican suggested putting all the offending priests on a dedicated island.
Despite the dark subject matter, this is an important historical work and has a interesting stylistic touch: whilst watching the deaf interviewees, we hear actors such as Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke voice their words.
Although such a device may have sprung from necessity, it adds an extra layer to their testimony, literally giving them the voice they were denied as young boys.
There is also some remarkably powerful home video footage towards the end of the film as it comes full circle back to St John’s School for the Deaf.
An important document of a massive scandal, it is also a stark reminder of the emotional destruction wrought by a large, unaccountable institution.