No forgiveness in silence
As Catholics around the world celebrate the election of Pope Francis, a new film exposes the extent of the Vatican's complicity in covering up sex crimes against children. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is the clearest indictment yet that Pope Francis' predecessor, Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shielded abusers, resisted turning over paedophile priests to the civilian authorities and sanctioned huge payouts to victims if they would keep quiet.
Last July, ABC's Four Corners exposed a cover-up in the Armidale diocese in which a known sex offender, referred to as "Father F" in church correspondence, was transferred between parishes rather than being prosecuted or defrocked. Two of his victims later committed suicide.
Now Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney's documentary film, which opened in Australia on March 21, demonstrates how this pattern has been repeated all over the world, as the sex crimes scandal has metastasised in Ireland, the US, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy.
I meet Gibney in his New York office, where he keeps his Academy Award on his desk, alongside an ornate vessel known as a monstrance, designed to hold communion wafers.
He was raised a Catholic by his "devout but flexible" father, journalist Frank Gibney, and regularly attended Mass at university in Boston. As a filmmaker, he has specialised in investigations of impenetrable and often corrupt institutions, among them the Enron Corporation (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the US military (No End in Sight) and Washington lobbyists (Casino Jack). His account of torture at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Taxi to the Dark Side, won best documentary feature at the Oscars in 2007.
"I'm interested in power," he says. "Noble-cause corruption is fascinating to me. The first instinct is 'if there are bad things it's only going to taint the goodness that we do, so we have to keep them secret'. By understanding that pathology and reckoning with it, we hopefully have a better shot at seeing it the next time around."
Mea Maxima Culpa documents the abuse perpetrated by Father Lawrence Murphy at St John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1950 to 1974. Archbishop Albert Meyer and the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate in Washington DC were first informed of his activities in 1958 but, despite a determined campaign by three of his victims to bring him to justice, he was never prosecuted or dismissed.
In 1998, plans to try Murphy under canon law were abandoned after he appealed directly to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency. He died six months later and was buried in his robes.
As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was in charge of investigating abuse cases. Gibney traces a paper trail directly to his desk. "The failure of Benedict to take institutional responsibility for the problem was staggering," he says.
Australian Catholics are entitled to wonder how many of the abuse cases in the dioceses of Ballarat, Maitland-Newcastle and Bathurst, among many others, were referred to the Vatican for resolution. Broken Rites, a support group for victims, has identified more than 100 cases in which Catholic priests have been charged with sex crimes against minors in Australia but says this figure vastly underestimates the scale of abuse, as successful prosecutions are dependent on victims speaking out.
In 2008, Ratzinger addressed the issue - as Pope Benedict - in a speech he gave at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney. "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured," he told the congregation. "Victims should receive compassion and care, and those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice."
In 2011, the Vatican told bishops to set out "clear and co-ordinated procedures" for dealing with suspected abuse but did not go so far as to make them turn over to police priests facing credible allegations.
Gibney believes that Benedict's retirement was hastened by his knowledge of how deep the abuse scandal runs within the church. "His resignation was the most important thing about his papacy: one, because it sent a powerful message that this is a man doing a job; and two, because the church is not going to make any progress with the sex abuse scandals with Benedict at the helm, because he is so enmeshed in that problem and so weak in finding a solution to it."
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) released a list of 12 cardinals at the conclave in Rome who have been implicated in sex abuse cover-ups, among them the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. As a bishop, Pell accompanied Father Gerald Ridsdale to court when he was convicted of child sex charges in 1993. As Archbishop of Melbourne, he allowed Father Graham Redfern to continue in the priesthood after an internal investigation concluded that he had abused an 18-year-old parishioner.
Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Archbishop of Los Angeles who also took part in the conclave despite the release of documents proving that he helped paedophile priests evade arrest, has urged the faithful to "take up our cross daily and to follow Jesus - in rejection, in humiliation, and in personal attack".
These are typical responses to criticisms levelled against those with unquestioned authority, Gibney argues. "The pathology of power almost always results in the powerful imagining themselves as victims," he says. " The Pope sits in Rome, in these spectacular surroundings, imagining that the horrible crimes done to these children are somehow an attack on the Catholic Church."
Gibney argues that only a truth and reconciliation commission can comprehensively address the problem and restore faith in the church. "They should open the archives of every archdiocese and the Vatican itself, so that everybody could see what happened," he says. "That would be the clearest signal to everybody that they're serious about tackling this problem: not only revealing what happened in the past, but in protecting children in the present and the future."