Tom Seymour: “It was Deaf power.” Interview with Alex Gibney, director of Mea Maxima Culpa

Posted on March 6, 2013

As scandal plagues the Catholic Church, a new documentary about four Deaf men who say they were sexually abused almost 50 years ago by a Catholic Priest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has reached UK cinemas. The survivors orchestrated “the first public protest of clerical sex abuse in America,” and were answered with vitriol from the Vatican. Oscar winning-director Alex Gibney talks to The Limping Chicken about Mea Maxima Culpa, in cinemas now.

Mea Maxima Culpa, the acclaimed documentary from Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, opens with ghostly footage of Father Lawrence Murphy, a respected Catholic Priest from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who, the film claims, over a period of 22 years, systematically molested hundreds of primary school children while in charge of a boarding school for the Deaf.

Father Murphy (below) was a hearing man who could sign well. He knew the parents of many of the children in his care couldn’t use sign language, and the film alleges that he used the children’s silence to his advantage. When the police first came to investigate an accusation by one of the molested children, Murphy – who has since admitted his crimes after three decades of denial – said: “You can’t listen to Deaf children, they’re retarded.”

Father Murphy

The film’s director Alex Gibney says: “The story was so horrifying; a guy abusing more than 200 kids in a deaf school. It was sickening. But as I began to make the film, I realised the story had links right to the top of the Vatican and to Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. The events in Milwaukee, Wisconsin seemed to speak to how the whole system in the Catholic Church worked.”

Gibney, whose previous films include Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9 and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, first became aware of the events through a New York Times article detailing four former pupils of the St John’s School for the Deaf, now in their 60s and with wives and children of their own, who had attempted to alert the Catholic Church of the abuse they suffered at the hands of Father Murphy.

Despite taking their claims to the Vatican, the four survivors – Terry Kohut, Arthur Budzinski, Pat Kuehn and Gary Smith – were met by a wall of silence. Pope Benedict XVI, in his earlier capacity as Cardinal Ratzinger, ordered all reports of sex abuse to be submitted to his office at the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, which he ran from 2001 to 2005. The survivors never got a hearing. The Pope, it seems, knew of the pedophiliac priest in Milwaukee and did nothing but denounce the accusers with sanctimonious outrage.


“Our school had a magnificent statue of Jesus Christ with his hands lovingly placed on the heads of two children,” survivor Terry Kohut (above), who attended St. Johns between 1960 and 1969, says in the film. “I could see that Jesus loved children, and that children loved Jesus.”

Gibney approached the four men and asked them to recount their memories of Father Murphy on camera. He did so, he says, out of a profound respect for their bravery and resilience: “People were talking about the men whom came forward as victims. But I think they are heroes. They fought for something and somehow they made a difference, despite the fact the Church was not interested in listening to them, despite the fact they are Deaf, and they couldn’t really make their voices heard.”

But Gibney was also aware of the emotional torment the men had lived with, and the personal struggles they would have to confront in order to admit to their pasts: “Some of the men in the film had been interviewed before about the assault of Father Murphy, but some of them came forward for the first time. That’s a very scary thing; suddenly you’re expected to talk openly, not just to another person, but to millions of people.”

Speaking in the film, Terry Kohut – who is voiced by John Slattery as he signs to the camera – said of the time before the abuse started: “Murphy would hug children. We all loved Father Murphy, we would just flock to him. I needed his attention, because he was like a second father to me.”


Gibney says: “But I think what they discovered was, by keeping it inside, it was eating them alive. Terry wrote a letter to Father Murphy in which he says he could now go on living his life as a fully realised human being. Before that, he was compromised. He and his wife couldn’t have children because he felt that he was too balled up with anger and shame. But they all managed it. Theirs was the first public protest of clerical sex abuse in America.”

On the day Pope Benedict announced he was to resign – the first Pope in 600 years to leave his post as the human representative of God – Gibney received an email from one of the survivors, which read: “Finally. Many, many thanks to you and your crew for spreading our word, because we want to protect all innocent children.”

Gibney says: “I don’t think you can give credit to these guys for taking down the Pope, but I think they feel part of something important. People are finally raising their voices and saying: ‘Enough. This is a secret that has existed for too long and the church hasn’t done anything about it.’ They have allowed that to happen, and they feel empowered. As Terry says at the end of the film, it was Deaf power. ”


Mea Maxima Culpa is in cinemas now, and will be released on DVD in May. Watch the trailer with subtitles here:

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