Back in the middle of October, as the London Film Festival was drawing to a close, I sat down with director Alex Gibney to discuss Mea Maxima Culpa, his LFF Award winning documentary, which examined the conspiracy of silence and obfuscation within the Catholic Church over the abuse of young boys in a Catholic residential school for deaf children – as well as the near endless succession of sexual abuse scandals, from Ireland to Africa, that have been covered up over the last five decades.
One of the key figures in the documentary – the man responsible for the Vatican’s policy on child abuse up until 2005, and on one occasion, responsible for protecting a paedophile priest from being defrocked was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned his ministry due to ailing health yesterday.
It’s rather remarkable how relevant our interview has now become. During the course of our discussion, Gibney spoke about his own Catholic faith, as well as what he believes to be ongoing cover-ups, protecting sexually abusive priests in the developing world, and the ways he believes the Church may be able to prevent such abuses in future.
HeyUGuys: With Mea Maxima Culpa, once again you’re going after corruption in a large institution. Is it a need for you now?
Alex Gibney: So much corruption, so little time. I feel like it’s a work program for me, like the gift that keeps on giving, all these abuses of power. So long as people are interested in watching films about it, I’ve got no end of subject matter. This one was a little bit personal, I was raised Catholic, so there was a certain, personal element.
Did the film change your relationship with your faith at all.
No. I would say that by the time I came to this, I was a pretty lapsed Catholic, but having been raised Catholic, the priests always say, ‘if you get them young, you never lose them’, so being Catholic is very much a part of who I am, but I stopped going to church some time ago, and I have a place in my consciousness for The Spirit, or God, or whatever you want to call it, but not much for religion.
Do you imagine this scandal, and the revelation of this scandal has changed the Catholic Church?
Not enough. In the film I try to make a pretty big distinction between faith – as in the belief that an individual has in God, and the hierarchy of an institution. This is supposed to be an institution founded on charity and love; it turns out to be an institution that is all about power, and the abuse of power. You would hope that the Church would look at itself in the mirror as a result of the scandal, and go, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to change’, but I fear that it’s not happening. The Church I’m sure would say, ‘oh no, that’s ridiculous, look at all the big changes we’ve made in America – for example, having to do with new requirements for clerics to report abuse to civil authorities and so on and so on’.
Yeah, that’s true. Those changes have been made. What hasn’t changed, from the top down, is this sense of secrecy and hypocrisy which is at the very heart of the institution. You have an institution that has forced celibacy, and over 50% of the people in that institution violate that vow, y’know there’s an essential hypocrisy of the Church which is solved by secrecy, and where you have secrecy, you have corruption.
Do you think if you were to remove that forced celibacy that the Church might be a better institution?
I think so. I’d hate to go too far in that direction, because I think there are people who make a legitimate choice to go celibate, but the forced celibacy I think is a problem, because, like I say, it put hypocrisy and secrecy at the heart of the institution, and I think that’s a very hard thing to fix. Then sexual blackmail becomes a mechanism by which people stay silent about sexual abuses, so that’s a real problem.
What do you think could still be going on?
I think there’s still a lot of sexual abuse, particularly in Africa and South America. I think you see it throughout. I think there’s also a lot of cover-up, frankly. One of the most appalling things about this, people say, ‘Don’t we know about the sex abuse scandal?’ to some extent we do, but to a great extent we don’t know nearly enough. Why? Because the Church is keeping its archives closed. It wouldn’t be a very hard thing to open those archives, and let everybody see just what has been going on.
Now the Church may say, well wait a minute, what about all those innocent people who have been falsely accused? That’s a fairly simple problem to solve; you put all those materials in the hands of some human rights organisation that properly redacts them, and works with law enforcement in various places to make sure more children are protected. But the Church won’t do it, because the Church is too obsessed with its image, too obsessed with the maintenance of its own corrupt institution. It’s really appalling.
I wonder whether there’s a way of – let’s take the human rights organisation point, and I would tend to agree with you, but look at Wikileaks, that has been that organisation in so many different respects. We’ve seen how corrupt some members of that have been. Surely all organisations are going to be…
Maybe I won’t talk about Wikileaks. I’d like to, but I’m not going to because I’m just finishing a film about it, so much as I would like to talk about Wikileaks, I won’t.
With this film, given the controversial subject matter, were you at all concerned about the risks of using dramatic reconstructions taking away from the thrust of the film?
No. I felt they needed to be done for a couple of reasons. One was, after hearing the testimony of the men, certain images, or memories kept coming back, over and over and over again, most revolving around the dorm room, but some revolving around the oddest kind of things, like sex in closets or confession in closets. They were so vivid, and so consistent, that it seemed to me that the idea of memory, as sort of a return of the repressed is an important thing to visualise, and doing so, I would try to do in a way that was consistent with the manner in which they described them, which is not unlike a horror film. That’s how I shot them. So without visualising them, it’s hard to appreciate their power. You can hear about them all you want, but there’s something about – and at least gratifyingly, the victims, the survivors themselves have seen them, and remarked how resonant they feel they are.
The other kind of reconstruction we used were rituals, both Communion, which has a kind of – it’s both the magic of the church – the key to ‘Sacrimentality’, but also there’s kind of a sexual element, particularly as you place the wafer on the lips of somebody – which is no longer done, of course. And then confession, the idea of that weird process, which in some ways I think is great, and in some ways I think is terrible, where one person confesses all their sins to somebody else, and if that person then abuses that trust, then it’s a murder scene, because as somebody says in the film, ‘it’s the murder of the soul’. That’s our crime scene. So for all those reasons I thought it was important to do those reconstructions, because they give you a sense of both the concrete reality of the rituals of the church, and the visceral, emotional sense of the power of these moments, that are memories.
Following that same theme, you have – unusually for a documentary – several witnesses, narrators, who are deaf. When you came to literally, giving voice to them, how did you go about that?
I wanted those voices to be performed, I didn’t want them to be translated, because I was trying to make the experience of listening for the hearing viewer, hearing and seeing simultaneously, the deaf survivors, as visceral as possible. And also, purely on a technical level, we do a lot of cutting away to images, and so you may hear somebody’s voice trail off, and somebody else’s trail on. If the voices had been too similar in terms of their timbre and character, you wouldn’t have picked up the idea that now the voice has changed, and a different person is talking. We tried to cast them in a way that preserved the sense of difference between the people, and used our imaginations to think what those voices might have been like.
You said yourself, the Church hasn’t done enough, it doesn’t seem to be doing enough, what will you be doing now? Is that it now, or – in general, with all of your films – where do you leave off? Do you continue to fight?
Yeah. To some extent my job is to be a filmmaker, so it’s not my job necessarily to stop my job as a filmmaker, and start lobbying for tougher legislation, but it’s also my responsibility with a film like this to not only find out more, but to do something. How do you protect your children? How do you – and also, frankly, very often abuses of power happen because the rest of us aren’t prepared for those abuses. You really have to practice being prepared for them. By which I mean, very often power’s abused through respectability, or sanctity.
‘Surely people from JP Morgan, Chase and Goldman Sachs can’t be corrupt’, you laugh at that now, but I think there was this view that, ‘they’re bankers, they’re respectable bankers’.’ Those guys at Enron made so much money, surely they’re so smart’, ‘George Bush and Dick Cheney, they’re protecting us. We must trust them to get the bad guys’, well it turns out that a little bit of trust can be a good thing, a lot of trust, or too much trust can be a bad thing. You have to be prepared, when you have that gnawing in your stomach to raise your hand and say, ‘no, something’s going on here, I know something’s going on, I’m going to raise my hand, I’m going to speak up’. Part of what I think films can do is to prepare you. They become vehicles by which you not only look at what’s happened in the past, but rehearse what’s might happen in the future.
Mea Maxima Culpa is released in selected UK cinemas on Friday. If you happen to be in the London area, the film will be screening at the Curzon Soho tomorrow (Wednesday 13th February), followed by a Q&A afterwards with Gibney. Tickets are available here. I suspect it could prove a very worthwhile evening.