Friday, Nov. 29, 2013

Silence in the House of God

Alex Gibney’s Documentary on Pedophile Priests

By David Luhrssen
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Good work had been done for many years at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. But in 1950, a predator entered the school’s wooded grounds in the form of its new director, Father Lawrence Murphy. The outside world saw him as a charismatic fundraiser. Inside the institution, Murphy was a pedophile using his position of power to prey on hundreds of boys in his charge for more than two decades. He often chose children whose parents did not understand sign language, but in any event, he was confident that the deference accorded Roman Catholic priests would be his surest defense.

Director Alex Gibney focuses on Murphy in Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God, but his documentary (out on DVD) expands beyond Milwaukee to show that what happened at St. John’s was no anomaly. The vow of celibacy is too heavy a burden for as many as half of Roman Catholic priests, according to Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine and sex therapist for the Church. In his interview, Sipe doesn’t estimate the percentage of those priests who may practiced pederasty, but adds that the hierarchy’s unstated position amounts to “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The Church recognized its pedophilia problem in 1947, founding an order called the Servants of Paraclete to operate a secretive network of treatment centers for priestly abusers. The real sin, however, is the Church’s long established pattern of refusing to discharge the offenders from the priesthood. Instead of being defrocked and turned over to civil authorities, they are given leaves of absence and moved to other communities where they usually repeat their offenses. Repentance has been reduced to words and empty promises, not a change in behavior or even a profound realization of the problem. Murphy rationalized his actions, according to documents that have surfaced. He was helping his boys come to terms with their sexuality, he maintained.

Here and there, a few priests have tried to shake the system from its willingness to protect its own regardless of their actions, but the only effective challenge has come from the victims, including many of Murphy’s former pupils interviewed in Mea Culpa.

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