Mea Maxima Culpa: Voices Unheard, 1

Introducing: Silence in the House of God — Mea Maxima Culpa

In soft lighting, the tale is told with the focus on each of the four signing men in turn, all of them former pupils at the Wisconsin school. Actors Chris Cooper, John Slattery, Ethan Hawke, and Jamey Sheridan voice the stories, as the expressive ASL gestures of Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinski, Pat Kuehn, and Terry Kohut, fill the muffled tones of the otherwise bare screen (Bob Bolger, another classmate, appears through archival footage). The sign translated in close captioning as “being silenced” — one fist in front of the other, both masking the mouth — held particular potency.

Terry Kohut, silenced

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But out of curiosity, long after I had once again thought this essay to be completed, I looked for this sign online to see if there was a literal translation. After all, translation is part of my literary training and here was a language with subtleties this story urged me to explore. Plus, I’d done an essay in a graduate course comparing captions for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I found that the Spanish and French translations didn’t always jibe with the original English, so it’s possible that there was more to know about the connotation of this sign.

I couldn’t find it. I could not identify that sign. What I did find, however, revealed that the sign for “keeping secret” or for something private and personal, is simply one fist masking the mouth with the thumb at the lips. It appears that the additional fist serves as an “adverb.” According to American Sign Language University online, “ASL adverbs can be signs, facial expressions, modifications (changes) in the way we move a sign, or modifications in the length of time we hold a sign in one place.” In this case, the secretiveness was amplified, multiplied, intensified, all by one poignant additional gesture nailing the secret in place. I teared up as I realized how deeply buried these children had felt their secret must be.

Trailer for Silence in the House of God: Mea Maxima Culpa

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Melancholy shots of dark winter landscapes, snowy hillsides, frozen lakes, and bleak leaf-denuded branches underscore the contrast of the deaf boys’ vulnerability against images of the church’s power, with its majestic vestments and glowing stained glass. Muted strings carry the motion from scene to scene, musically painting the silence of the deaf. Directed by Lisa Rinzler, this chilling narrative of abuse and deception unfolds so gradually, but continuously, that it seems inevitable. This is definitely a “point of view” film as seen in the chapter headings like “Warning Signs,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” and “Devil in Disguise.” But other headings, like “The Singing Priest,” and “A New Parish” proved that understatement can often be more effective than overt outrage.

The filmmakers make it clear that some people tried to help the boys. The Church’s original Benedict began his monastic order, the Order of St. Benedict (OSB) in the sixth century. His “rule” of obedience, stability, and conversatio (the willingness to adopt change while remaining faithful to the monastic life), aiming at liberation of the spirit achieved through ora e labora [prayer and work], resulted in productive communities around the globe. This order includes the Benedictines of Solesmes, France who did so much to revive and preserve the glories of plainchant in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Interestingly, a member of this order, a modern Benedictine, was among the first to posit pedophilia as incurable. Richard Sipe, OSB, identified in the film as a clinical sex therapist, was not only an OSB monk for eighteen years, but a trained therapist who studied celibacy in the priesthood over a period of 25 years. In the acts of some of these abusive priests, he identified a poisonous strain of “Noble Cause Corruption,” a syndrome that, in the minds of some pedophile priests, “purifies” their putrid practices.

This is an “ends justify the means” mode of thinking often found among police officers who take illegal means to achieve a positive result. Police Chief magazine defines this syndrome as “corruption committed in the name of good ends.” The difference between this version and that found among priests comes when you consider personal gain. Police officers guilty of this syndrome are typically trying to reach accepted goals in their professions: criminals off the streets, justice done. The priests only exercise common, or garden-variety, venality. Power and personal gratification seem to be their only aims. Nothing in Church doctrine could possibly justify the priest who put the consecrated host to a young girl’s vagina to “purify” the act before he raped her. The disgust at what was done to them still possesses Father Murphy’s former victims and their allies; the agony on their faces as you could see each one blaming himself, in some small part, for his victimization; all this unequivocally debunks even the smallest iota of such a perverse notion of “purity.”

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I’m a sometime fan of the TV drama Criminal Minds. Occasionally it gets a bit too graphically gory for me, but the analytical and intellectual portions are always thought-provoking. However. No episode of this series, whose goal is to plumb the depravities of the human psyche, can ever hope to match the horrors of the true stories told in Mea Maxima Culpa. Terry’s tale of his excitement as he remembered Bambi, his first captioned film, modulates to pain before our very eyes as he remembers the feel of Father Murphy’s penis tapping the back of the head as he watched.

Mea Maxima pictures real life bambis at Fr. Murphy’s summer cottage in Wisconsin where he took a group of boys; Gary’s painfully eloquent ASL gestures and frequent sighs as he tells of how he resigned himself to being molested night after night on a senior bus trip to visit colleges; and even the stunned disbelief on the face of another Benedictine, Brother Patrick Wall, as he relates his introduction to the world of priests who “molested, raped, and sodomized kids” are enough to turn the strongest stomach, to shatter the hardest heart.

Brother Patrick Wall’s blue-gray eyes widen behind his rimless glasses, while his mouth forms a nearly perfect oval of re-lived surprise. It was just after the ordination of this massive ex-football player in the 1990s, with his parents smiling in pride on either side of their son, that Church authorities tasked him with cleaning up the mess that abusive priests were causing all over the country. While the innocent Brother initially thought he had a mandate to dispense pastoral care and to “comfort the afflicted,” he wised up over the course of five years, realizing that coverup was the name of the game. When it became clear to him that coverup was the only game, and that abusers were allowed to remain in the priesthood, he resigned his calling. He now has a blog site where he faithfully chronicles abuse cases and allows whistleblowers the chance to tell their stories, and explores Church traditions, such as recycling priests. One interesting item is a piece of papal trivia he passes on is that the last pope to consider that authorities outside the church should be used to deal with sex offenders was Pius V in . . . wait for it . . . 1568.

A cop and a priest walk into a bar.

Cop: The “Blue Wall” is unbreachable.

Priest: Hold my sacramental wine.

Meanwhile, the boys of St. John’s, now men, did all they could. Once they met as adults and shared their memories, they went to the police. To no avail. Fr. Murphy simply denied it and that was that. The men posted flyers warning potential donors to the school’s coffers. To no avail. In 1974, they finally got a meeting with Archbishop William Cousins who conceded the problem. To no avail.

For more than twenty years — the same number of years that Murphy’s counterpart in Ireland, Father Tony Walsh admitted to over 200 acts of abuse — Murphy’s abusive behavior had been reported. Starting even before 1957, when a visiting priest had taken Arthur’s complaints seriously, through 1963 when Terry had made his complaint to the Church, they sought justice. They went to a District Attorney’s office (headed by two devout Catholics), only to be told the statute of limitations had run its course. To their partial credit, the D.A. did do an investigation of sorts — twenty minutes speaking with students in St. John’s senior dorm. To no avail. The students wouldn’t talk until after the official visitation had ended. They spoke to their dorm supervisor who threatened the Archbishop by saying that he would go to students’ parents if something weren’t done. Then, and only then, was Fr. Murphy removed, twenty years after his abuses were first reported. After.

Newspaper editors entered into the conspiracy of silence regarding the real reason for the removal and Fr. Murphy was allowed to leave the scene of his crime among teary-eyed boys and girls thanking him for loving them. One of his former victims, having returned to the school to teach history, recorded the leave-taking for posterity. I have to say, this was one of the most sickening moments in the film — long lines of children shaking the hand of a child abuser.

Father Murphy with Pat Kuehn in boyhood
Father Murphy with Pat Kuehn

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