Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.
The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.
The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.
In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee’s archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy’s dismissal.
But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations.
“I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” Father Murphy wrote near the end of his life to Cardinal Ratzinger. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.” The files contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.
Instead of being disciplined, Father Murphy was quietly moved by Archbishop William E. Cousins of Milwaukee to the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin in 1974, where he spent his last 24 years working freely with children in parishes, schools and, as one lawsuit charges, a juvenile detention center. He died in 1998, still a priest.
Former Archbishop Rembert Weakland is trying to play the role of the priest that wasn’t listened to in this scandal. That is bullshit. Weakland tried to defrok the priest in question in 1996, 26 years after the abuse took place. Weakland, who himself is gay, shredded reports of sex abuse claims and threatened legal actions against “libelous” teachers and people in media who reported sexual abuse by a local priests. In 1994, Weakland said those reporting sexual abuse were “squealing.”
This claim that he wasn’t listened to by the Vatican is just a thinly veiled attempt for Weakland to clear is sorely tarnished name. The former Archbishop is a black eye on Milwaukee, an embarrassment to the American Catholic church and a shameful human being.
Wow, it’s really tough to be proud, or even want to be active in the Catholic church in Milwaukee.
The New York Times on March 25 accused Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, of intervening to prevent a priest, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, from facing penalties for cases of sexual abuse of minors.
The story is false. It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism.
The second source was Archbishop Rembert Weakland, retired archbishop of Milwaukee. He is the most discredited and disgraced bishop in the United States, widely known for mishandling sexual-abuse cases during his tenure, and guilty of using $450,000 of archdiocesan funds to pay hush money to a former homosexual lover who was blackmailing him. Archbishop Weakland had responsibility for the Father Murphy case between 1977 and 1998, when Father Murphy died. He has long been embittered that his maladministration of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee earned him the disfavor of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, long before it was revealed that he had used parishioners’ money to pay off his clandestine lover. He is prima facie not a reliable source.
It’s possible that bad sources could still provide the truth. But compromised sources scream out for greater scrutiny. Instead of greater scrutiny of the original story, however, news editors the world over simply parroted the New York Times piece. Which leads us the more fundamental problem: The story is not true, according to its own documentation.
The New York Times made available on its own website the supporting documentation for the story. In those documents, Cardinal Ratzinger himself does not take any of the decisions that allegedly frustrated the trial. Letters are addressed to him; responses come from his deputy. Even leaving that aside, though, the gravamen of the charge — that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office impeded some investigation — is proven utterly false.
The documents show that the canonical trial or penal process against Father Murphy was never stopped by anyone. In fact, it was only abandoned days before Father Murphy died. Cardinal Ratzinger never took a decision in the case, according to the documents. His deputy, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, suggested, given that Father Murphy was in failing health and a canonical trial is a complicated matter, that more expeditious means be used to remove him from all ministry.
To repeat: The charge that Cardinal Ratzinger did anything wrong is unsupported by the documentation on which the story was based. He does not appear in the record as taking any decision. His office, in the person of his deputy, Archbishop Bertone, agreed that there should be full canonical trial. When it became apparent that Father Murphy was in failing health, Archbishop Bertone suggested more expeditious means of removing him from any ministry.
Furthermore, under canon law at the time, the principal responsibility for sexual-abuse cases lay with the local bishop. Archbishop Weakland had from 1977 onwards the responsibility of administering penalties to Father Murphy. He did nothing until 1996. It was at that point that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office became involved, and it subsequently did nothing to impede the local process.
Here is the relevant timeline, drawn from the documents the New York Times posted on its own website.
15 May 1974
Abuse by Fr. Lawrence Murphy is alleged by a former student at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. In fact, accusations against Father Murphy go back more than a decade.
12 September 1974
Father Murphy is granted an official “temporary sick leave” from St. John’s School for the Deaf. He leaves Milwaukee and moves to northern Wisconsin, in the Diocese of Superior, where he lives in a family home with his mother. He has no official assignment from this point until his death in 1998. He does not return to live in Milwaukee. No canonical penalties are pursued against him.
9 July 1980
Officials in the Diocese of Superior write to officials in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about what ministry Father Murphy might undertake in Superior. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee since 1977, has been consulted and says it would be unwise to have Father Murphy return to ministry with the deaf community. There is no indication that Archbishop Weakland foresees any other measures to be taken in the case.
17 July 1996
More than 20 years after the original abuse allegations, Archbishop Weakland writes to Cardinal Ratzinger, claiming that he has only just discovered that Father Murphy’s sexual abuse involved the sacrament of confession — a still more serious canonical crime. The allegations about the abuse of the sacrament of confession were in the original 1974 allegations. Weakland has been archbishop of Milwaukee by this point for 19 years.
It should be noted that for sexual-abuse charges, Archbishop Weakland could have proceeded against Father Murphy at any time. The matter of solicitation in the sacrament of confession required notifying Rome, but that too could have been done as early as the 1970s.
10 September 1996
Father Murphy is notified that a canonical trial will proceed against him. Until 2001, the local bishop had authority to proceed in such trials. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is now beginning the trial. It is noteworthy that at this point, no reply has been received from Rome indicating that Archbishop Weakland knew he had that authority to proceed.
24 March 1997
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, advises a canonical trial against Father Murphy.
14 May 1997
Archbishop Weakland writes to Archbishop Bertone to say that the penal process against Father Murphy has been launched, and notes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has advised him to proceed even though the statute of limitations has expired. In fact, there is no statute of limitations for solicitation in the sacrament of confession.
Throughout the rest of 1997 the preparatory phases of penal process or canonical trial is underway. On 5 January 1998 the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee says that an expedited trial should be concluded within a few months.
12 January 1998
Father Murphy, now less than eight months away from his death, appeals to Cardinal Ratzinger that, given his frail health, he be allowed to live out his days in peace.
6 April 1998
Archbishop Bertone, noting the frail health of Father Murphy and that there have been no new charges in almost 25 years, recommends using pastoral measures to ensure Father Murphy has no ministry, but without the full burden of a penal process. It is only a suggestion, as the local bishop retains control.
13 May 1998
The Bishop of Superior, where the process has been transferred to and where Father Murphy has lived since 1974, rejects the suggestion for pastoral measures. Formal pre-trial proceedings begin on 15 May 1998, continuing the process already begun with the notification that had been issued in September 1996.
30 May 1998
Archbishop Weakland, who is in Rome, meets with officials at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, including Archbishop Bertone but not including Cardinal Ratzinger, to discuss the case. The penal process is ongoing. No decision taken to stop it, but given the difficulties of a trial after 25 years, other options are explored that would more quickly remove Father Murphy from ministry.
19 August 1998
Archbishop Weakland writes that he has halted the canonical trial and penal process against Father Murphy and has immediately begun the process to remove him from ministry — a quicker option.
21 August 1998
Father Murphy dies. His family defies the orders of Archbishop Weakland for a discreet funeral.