Over the past ten years there has been a steady flow of allegation and scandal about the Catholic Church, the media focusing on the victims of sexual abuse and the reticence of the institutions of the church to deal with the issue. It’s timely then, that Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron) pulls together the various threads of these scandals, delivering a carefully constructed observation of the facts and a withering condemnation of the behaviour of the Catholic Church.
Gibney chooses to tell the intimate, personal side of this story from the perspective of three deaf men, all victims of sexual abuse when – as children – they were in the care of Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who ran a school for deaf children in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s, and who is now known to have abused more than 200 of those in his care. More powerful than these stories is the way Gibney shoots their telling – each man signing his deep buried pain to camera in interview, close microphones capturing their breathing and guttural anguish with a silent intensity that is both beautiful and terrifying. Having made the personal connection, Gibney then moves the story meticulously outwards, examining both historical and contemporary cover ups within one of the world’s most protected and secretive organisations, making it clear that the church has known about the issue for more than a thousand years.
Gibney interviews expert-Vatican watchers, ex-priests who were involved in various aspects of the institutionalised processes of denial, and even Human Rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, who sheds some fascinating light on the Vatican’s legal status as a sovereign “nation.” Inevitably Gibney’s investigation leads to the Papal seat itself, perhaps giving pause for thought about the real reasons for the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Amongst the words of victims, witnesses, experts and analysts, the most frightening come from ex-priest Richard Sipe, who’s conducted extensive research into sex and the priesthood, and who claims that the church selects and protects sexual abusers.
Along with the powerful silent voices of those directly affected, Gibney chooses to load his story with the melodramatic use of slow motion re-enactments and horror movie-style music, but these are minor quibbles in an otherwise moving and important film.