Have you seen the film, Mea Maxima Culpa?


Have you seen the film Mea Maxima Culpa?

If you have not seen the Alex Gibney documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa, on clerical child abuse in the Catholic Church, then you need to know that this film will grab you by the eyeballs, make you sit up and pay attention. If you are a Catholic, especially if you value your faith, you will probably say, “Do I need to go see yet another anti-Catholic diatribe and have my night’s sleep disturbed?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, you do. You owe it to your love for the Church to do this.”

Another voice from the wings will say, “But what about those websites that say it is all ‘old hat’ and ‘pure anti-Catholic garbage’?” Yes, it is true that there are critiques of the film out there that draw attention to inaccuracies. Some of these critiques are well founded. But this does not detract from the compelling truth of the narrative.

But, you could legitimately argue that if there are inaccuracies how can this documentary be ‘true’. And how can it possibly merit inflicting it on myself and my peace of mind.

Just imagine you were living in the late 15th century or early 16th century. Just for one moment imagine you are listening to preachers (all Catholic priests) fulminating against the scandal of indulgences, that people, often the poor, had to hand over money to have an assurance of being saved from their sins. How would you react? Would you cover your ears and say, “Basta!”, “Enough!”. Or maybe you might have said, “Well, my priest doesn’t charge very much for indulgences so these people are simply promulgating anti-Church garbage”. Or, would you have said, “Actually, these preachers have a point”. At the time, the Church did not pay attention. That the Church was not prepared to listen at that time led to the Reformation. We are in such a time now, with equally serious implications for the Church.

The Truth will Set you Free

What the documentary does is to tell a story that has the ring of truth about it. Compellingly so. Read any commentary on the issue of child abuse and the Church and the word that will appear somewhere in the text will be ‘crisis’. I can hear you say: “Hang on, there is no ‘crisis!” Or as a famous Irish politician once said, “What crisis? There is no crisis.”

Institutions never admit to crises. Not the European Union, not the Irish Government, not the UK Government, not the ECB, not the NHS, not the HSE, not the banks. About the only group in recent times to admit that a crisis exists have been the agencies involved in the horse-meat scandal. And even in their case much denial took place at first. Until the facts were staring people in the face, few were prepared to acknowledge that there was a crisis. The Church is no different in this regard.

Read the current issue of The Tablet where the editor speaks about an increasing feeling of alienation among the Catholic faithful from the Vatican. It exists. It is real. And the story of clerical child abuse and how the Church has dealt with this issue has a lot to do with this feeling of alienation. As The Tablet puts it (March 1, 2013 issue):

It would be entirely understandable if Benedict XVI wanted “business as usual” signs to go up at the Vatican as soon as possible after his retirement, and for the new man in charge to carry on the good work of the old though perhaps with extra energy. What is emerging is something rather different – a growing groundswell of conviction, apparently at all levels in the Catholic Church, that things cannot go on as they are.

We need to acknowledge that the Church as an institution has failed to address the issue of child abuse in a transparent and forthright manner. In Ireland the Church has found itself compelled to act decisively and openly because of pressure from public opinion and the evidence in State reports (Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne). Similarly, in the States, and now across Europe. Where to next?

What this movie does is it joins up these dots. As the story is told, dispassionately, honestly, compellingly, the audience experiences a sense of dawning understanding. Individual Church people, good people, are seen to be so formed by institutional group-think that it becomes impossible for them to act as they might otherwise have done when faced with horrific evidence. When the evidence was presented (as was the case in the Father Lawrence Murphy story) by a priest (the relief chaplain, Father Walsh), by the victims, by students, by the school dormitory prefect, there was a strong institutional reflex to conceal what had happened by paying people off and consigning the evidence to secret archives. The ‘one bad apple’ narrative was in play. Each case was seen to indicate an aberration, a foul play in a game that was otherwise fair, a Black Swan event . No one was prepared to join the dots. No one was prepared to say, “Hang on a minute, we have evidence of this kind of stuff from all over the place, we have a problem”. In the end, the lawyers, whatever you think of them, forced the issue. All the way to the Vatican. And that story is on-going.

Catholicism and Truth belong Together

One of the dimensions that I admire about Catholicism is its conviction that faith and reason belong together, that whatever is true in the human world is also aligned with divine truth. God is present in the world in our experience of living in the truth. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

As Catholics we have not in recent years been living in the truth. We have been living behind a wall which we have built for ourselves, a wall that kept at bay what we perceived to be hostile forces hell-bent on destroying the Church. Yes, there are hostile forces with destructive agendas (as even a casual reading of some of the blogs will illustrate). But, in the case of child abuse, we have not been prepared to admit that as a Church we have not acted with courage, compassion and resolve. For many, there has been too much grudging acceptance of the facts as they now appear to us.

As I write this piece, the Cardinal-Electors from all over the world are gathering in Rome. This movie is one that they should watch together in the Domus Sanctae Marthae (the Vatican hotel where the Cardinals stay during the Conclave). Bertone (the Camerlingo) should make them do it. They will find that they will begin to understand why faithful people are angry with the Church.

They will begin to have some inkling of why the Vatican failed to address the crisis. When it comes to crises of governance, the Vatican’s failure in regard to the issue of clerical child abuse ranks up there with Enron and Lehman Brothers. It will dawn upon the Cardinals, many of them dealing with the crisis in their own dioceses and jurisdictions, why, individually, they found themselves powerless, unsupported, sometimes undermined, and fobbed off with less than transparent statements from the Vatican. And sometimes an “investigation”. They will begin to understand that often a Vatican investigation is in fact a strategy of concealment.

There is a passage early on in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose where Abbot Abo comes to Brother William by night to inform him that the abbey is in crisis because of dark deeds that have taken place there. The Abbot says:

In this abbey something has happened that requires the attention and counsel of an acute and prudent man such as you are. Acute in uncovering, and prudent (if necessary) in covering. If a shepherd errs, he must be isolated from other shepherds, but woe unto us if the sheep begin to distrust the shepherds.

As the Cardinals gather in this spring of 2013 few doubt any longer that the sheep are beginning to distrust the shepherds. Abbot Abo sees Brother William as an inquisitor who can do two things, uncover the evil and, if necessary, cloak it over lest faithful people lose their trust in the shepherds. Perhaps, and it is only a ‘perhaps’, the reflex to ‘cover things up’ in Pope Benedict won out over his inquisitorial instincts and duties. Or, what may be closer to the truth, he sought to deploy the wisdom and skills of a Brother William to do both. In the end, he discovered that this was impossible. Maybe, his decision to resign was, in part, prompted by this realisation.

Where do we go to from here

It is Benedict’s final gift to the Church that he has opened up a space where Catholic people everywhere can breathe again. The Spirit of God can find some space to influence developments. This past week I have had this overwhelming sense that now courage and truth can win out.

These past thirty years there has been an emerging sense of disconnect between the lives of faithful Catholics and the Church. When Cardinal Keith O’Brien was forced to resign last week because of revelations about past sexual indiscretions involving homosexuality, even the most loyal Catholics began to say “Enough!” The shepherds can no longer be trusted. We are being led into a wilderness where to live as a Catholic is to retreat into a world no longer inhabited by the people among whom we live and work. The Good News of Jesus Christ can no longer be proclaimed clearly and authentically because we have changed it into the bitter wine of scandal, culpable blindness and irrelevance.

It is time for change. Can the Holy Spirit convince the Cardinals of this simple contemporary revelation?


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