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Interview The Church can't move on from its abusive past until the pope is gone

Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s latest documentary explores how the Catholic Church protected child sex abusers across the world. Here, he discusses how power corrupted the institution – and may still cause its total downfall.

Touted widely as one of the most important documentary makers of our time, Alex Gibney tells the story of how deaf boys abused in a school in Wisconsin, USA, unleashed wide-spread investigations into the cover-up of paedophile priests, not just in America, but worldwide. Speaking to’s Christina Finn about his new documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, he says the only way the Church can move on is to be totally and unequivocally honest about past and present child abuse cases – because the safety of children should be paramount.

MY NEW FILM is not just about the crimes of the cover up of these sexual abuse, but it’s about the people that fought back. One of the things that was interesting about the Irish story over the past 10 or 15 years is how a country, which had very little division between church and state, suddenly had the civil society rise up, whether via journalists, angry parents or just the victims that felt they had to speak out.

Finally, we saw civil society take charge. The reports that were done, like the Murphy and Cloyne reports, told the truth – and that can make a huge difference. When there is suddenly a radical truth-telling going on, the whole of society changes and the people can take control. And what happens then is the power of the church is not so powerful any more; that was pretty important and inspiring to me.

Ignoring the truth

In the church, there are a few people that rise up. But the likes of Diarmuid Martin, who allowed the release of those documents – if more members of the hierarchy were like that, the church would have a better reputation.

When it comes to outing child sex abuse there are still constant obstacles that people face. I think the shame of the church is that it’s not really reckoning with the the depth of the scandal. You can see it in the film when there is an interview with cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of the highest ranking cardinals in the US, when he is talking to the 60 Minutes news programme. He tells the interviewer that yes, the church had these scandals, but that’s all behind them now. If that isn’t shocking enough, he goes on to say he thinks that on a whole, he thinks they have handled it pretty well – I mean, you have to be kidding me? How delusional is that.

They called Ratzinger the ostrich because he stuck his head in the ground over the scandals, even though every child sex abuse case had to cross his desk – but the Vatican are the ostriches; they don’t get it. Their heads are constantly in the ground. The church is under the mindset that you either follow the rules or get out.

People must vote with their feet

It is funny that this film is called Silence in the House of God because this church has not only been silent about the sex abuse crisis for the most part, but it also doesn’t seem to be a church that listens very well – certainly not to the cries of survivors. At some point, the people that sit in the pews are going to question and wonder ‘what are these people doing on our behalf? Who appointed them to set the rules?’

The church are quick to move on people that stick their head above ground and say ‘maybe we should have a discussion about female ordination’. No, you’re out. ‘Maybe we should have a discussion about the role of women in the church’ – No, out. It’s shocking. Churches can have any kind of rules they want, as long as they don’t commit crimes. People really have to vote with their feet.

The recent resignation by Pope Ratzinger is the best thing about his papacy. I don’t think the church can move forward on the subject of sex abuse unless he is gone, because he is so much associated with the knowledge of it and his inability to reckon with it in some kind of meaningful way. He never took responsibility on the part of the entire Catholic Church or the Vatican – he just criticised the Bishops. His culpability is never mentioned.

The pope is just a man

I think the other powerful thing about his resignation is that it sends the message that the pope can resign – even if he is the first to do so in 600 years. The reason I say this is the best thing about his whole papacy is that it sends a message that yes, this is just a guy that is doing a job – and he can resign. Maybe in the future he can even be fired. Maybe the shareholders of the church, the people, will be able to hold the CEO to account.

I am, however, very pessimistic about changes his resignation might bring. The hope is the church, as a whole, does what Diarmuid Martin did in Dublin. We need them to say:

We have a lot of documents and records of clerical sex abuse, both in the past and the present and we are going to release them all to a human rights organisation so that everyone can see that we are serious on this issue and we don’t care about the consequences, because, at the end of the day, the protection of children is more important that lawsuits – the truth is more important than anything.

If the church were to take that step I am sure they would get more followers and many would return. But it’s funny how power works, I have looked at it in my other documentaries and you see it over and over again; the psychological dysfunction of power is that the powerful see themselves as victims.

The role of journalists, film-makers and whistle-blowers is hugely important in questioning those powerful people in society. Where would we be without those efforts? The powerful abuse their power because they think they can, because they don’t think that anyone will hold them to account.

Justice for victims

That is why an abuser like Father Murphy, who is featured in this film, can be hiding in plain sight. Because there was a social agreement that – because these people were priests – they were given them a free pass; or because, like in Father Murphy’s case, he raised so much money for the deaf school that we are going to let him away with this; or they are getting old, so wouldn’t it be nice to just let them go and let them die in peace rather than get justice for victims. It takes people that are going to raise their voice and say no, and it is hard to do that.

While making this film with me, the victims told me they learned that the only way to heal themselves was to speak, because by keeping it inside they were burdened by all this shame and guilt and it was eating them alive. By speaking out they were saving themselves.

(YouTube via tiff)

Alex Gibney is an American Academy Award winning director. His works as director include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (nominated in 2005 for Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature); Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (short-listed in 2011 for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature); Casino Jack and the United States of Money; and Taxi to the Dark Side (winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature).

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God goes on release on February 22.

Read: Government publishes final sections of damning Cloyne report>

Read: ‘I didn’t go too far’: Taoiseach defends Cloyne report comments>

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