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Their cross to bear

Documentary focusing on former Milwaukee priest and the more than 200 deaf children he's alleged to have sexually abused connects denials, coverups to Vatican's highest office

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It's a historical documentary with current and ongoing implications, and the events of the past week have made it more timely now than when it was made.

The harrowing church-abuse film Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God takes the position that the trail of denials and coverups related to sexual-abuse charges against Catholic priests reaches all the way to the highest office of the Vatican.

The announcement this week that Pope Benedict XVI will resign -- the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years -- gives added weight to filmmaker Alex Gibney's (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side) assertion that the pontiff's role in the scandal, most notably back when he was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the man directly in charge of dealing with all sex-abuse charges directed at the Catholic church, can no longer be deflected or ignored.

In announcing his resignation, Pope Benedict cited his age and failing health. In interviews this week, Gibney -- who is in Britain promoting the U.K. premiere of Mea Maxima Culpa -- said he's convinced the sudden departure must be at least partially related to growing global pressure.

"(The resignation) seems, to me, inextricably linked to the sex-abuse crisis," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

"I think his papacy will always be saddled with the stain of the sex-abuse crisis. While he did some things to try to mitigate it, he never ever took responsibility in any kind of substantial way... He was always trying try to make it go away, and it wouldn't go away, because he never fundamentally understood how deep was the pain and the crime and never was willing to hold himself and the church to account for having done what it did."

In terms of the film itself, Mea Maxima Culpa -- which has its Canadian TV premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBC News Network -- is a perfect example of a film whose examination of a local problem ultimately reveals a widespread issue.

The documentary's prime focus is the crimes of Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who was stationed at a school for deaf children in Milwaukee for a quarter of a century. Between 1950 and 1974, Murphy is alleged to have abused at least 200 young students, often targeting boys whose parents did not use sign language, meaning the victims had no way of communicating what had happened to them.

According to Gibney's film, church officials were made aware of abuse at St. John's School for the Deaf as early as 1958, and the Vatican was informed of the charges by the early 1960s. Murphy remained at the school until 1974, when he was quietly relieved of his duties and relocated to another parish.

Eventually, one by one, former students began to tell their stories. In the 1970s, five deaf men banded together and found a way to make their voices heard. Mea Maxima Culpa takes their campaign to a global audience.

One of them, Terry Kohut, described his ordeal recently during the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles. Speaking with the aid of a sign-language translator, Kohut said this documentary has played an essential part in advancing their pursuit of justice.

"Father Murphy abused me when I was a little boy," he explained. "I was kind of shocked, because I couldn't tell anybody. I refused to tell anybody; for many, many years, I would not tell a soul. And I realized that (by) keeping silent, I was suffering even more.

"I couldn't stand to see Father Murphy as a priest, and find out he had abused other children. When I found that out, I became very angry. I wrote a letter to Father Murphy, and told him how I felt. I called him out. I sent a copy of the letter to the Vatican to let (them) know everything he had done to me... and I begged the Vatican to please defrock Father Murphy. I only wanted justice, and they ignored me.

"But I'll tell you, I'm so happy and grateful that Alex has made this movie for us to tell the world. I want the world to see this movie."

After exploring Murphy's history of abuse in minute detail in the first part of the film, Gibney expands his focus, offering details of similar cases in other U.S. locales as well as in other countries, most notably Ireland, a nation whose deep connection to the Catholic church has been irreparably damaged by continuing sex-abuse revelations.

During the press-tour interview session, former Benedictine monk and mental-health counsellor Richard Sipe said despite the shocking revelations in Mea Maxima Culpa, the truth of sexual abuse within the church is only beginning to be revealed.

"Sexual abuse of minors is a societal problem on every level of society, in every ethnic group," he explained. "But what you make of the Catholic church is that they have a tradition that says, 'We have a group of men who are entirely sexually safe,' that they do not practise sex in any form, at any time. That is the myth that I have been faced with in my life.

"I didn't start out being interested in sexual abuse of minors, but what came out, what evolved from studying this group of people over a long period of time is that there is a baseline... And I am right. This is systemic.

"What's unique about this documentary is that it puts the whole systemic picture together. And to me, the marvellous, almost miraculous thing is that you have people without a voice having a strong voice. As (Kohut) said, 'Deaf Power.'"

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 G1

History

Updated on Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 12:51 PM CST: adds fact box

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