For various reasons, I haven’t been blogging in the last week or so. The most important reason was the fact that on March 21, the night of the House vote on health care, my laptop’s hard drive failed and it had to be taken in for repair. It was unavailable for a week and I am only just now getting up to speed. So I haven’t blogged on the fallout of the health care vote. But now something else has gotten my attention. This is a major and totally unfair attack against the Church and especially the Pope, that is all over the news during Holy Week; it is one that cries out for an answer.
By now, everyone has heard from the media that in 1998, Pope Benedict XVI while head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), supposedly failed to expel a priest who had molested deaf children from the ranks of the clergy, that he “looked the other way.” Ratzinger is said to have blocked the trial and kept the priest from being laicized because of a letter that the priest in question, Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy, wrote him in January 1998, saying that he had repented and was in poor health, and begging the Cardinal not to take “the dignity of his priesthood” from him.
Some bad, even malicious reporting by the New York Times has distorted the record in this case and I want to do by best to rectify it.
Fr. Murphy headed a school for the deaf in Milwaukee from 1950 until 1974. After persistent rumors that he had molested students under his care were investigated by the diocese, he was pulled from the school by the Archbishop Cousins of Milwaukee and sent to a different diocese, Superior, Wisconsin, to live with his mother; he was given no parish assignment, but nevertheless continued to be active in ministry. The police had been notified by the victims, but after investigating, dropped the case. A later civil lawsuit had also gone nowhere.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s congregation only entered the picture some twenty-two years later, in July 1996, when the subsequent Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, wrote a letter to him at the CDF for guidance as he sought to have a canonical trial for Murphy at the request of some of his victims, who also wanted him to be laicized. The CDF had no jurisdiction over abuse of minors by priests at the time; Weakland contacted the Congregation because Fr. Murphy had been accused of soliciting his victims for sex in the confessional, which did fall under Ratzinger’s jurisdiction. For about nine months, there was no answer, which has been seen as indicating a lack of caring by Cardinal Ratzinger and his congregation. But delays of this type really unusual for the Vatican. Oddly, no one seems yet to have questioned why Weakland sent no follow-up letter for some six months, although he was supposedly eager to get on with the case. At any rate, in March 1997, Weakland did hear from Ratzinger’s second in command, the Secretary of the CDF, then Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, with instructions about the proper application of canon law.
By late 1997, the case had been transferred to the diocese of Superior, where Murphy was residing. Murphy wrote his pleading letter in January 1998, which was not directly answered by the CDF. Weakland and other bishops involved met with Vatican officials at the office of the CDF on May 30, 1998 to discuss the case. According to the notes of Bishop Richard Sklba, Weakland’s auxiliary, they had not been encouraged to pursue a formal dismissal of Fr. Murphy from the clerical state. On August 19, Archbishop Weakland wrote to Rome to say he was stopping the trial, and Murphy died 2 days later, on August 21, 1998, without any real redress for his victims.
This case began to cause a furor last week when it appeared in the March 25 New York Times in a story by Laurie Goodstein under a headline screaming: “Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest who Abused Boys.” It created a firestorm of controversy. In some quarters there are calls for Benedict’s resignation. But the Church is fighting back. My own Archbishop, Timothy Dolan, has weighed in here.
What is unique in a way about this — and a sign of the vitality and rich possibilities of the new online journalism — is that the online NYT article was accompanied by 86 pages of documents from the case produced in the dioceses of Milwaukee and Superior as it was carried all the way up to the CDF. Yet Goodstein made very little use of the documents herself in her inflammatory account. In fact, the documents themselves tell a very different story than the news article. They also leave a slightly different impression impression of what happened at the meeting than do the accounts of the U.S. bishops involved.
In spite of what the NYT and others say, it is clear that the then Cardinal Ratzinger had no real connection to the case. While the initial letters from Weakland were written to him, the case was delegated to Bertone, who unlike the theologian Ratzinger, has a degree in canon law, and therefore was the obvious person to handle the matter. There is no indication of what, if any, decisions Ratzinger made in regard to Murphy; not a single letter or document from him appears in the files, not even an answer to Fr. Murphy’s letter. Bertone could very well consulted with his boss in the matter, but we can deduce nothing about this one way or another from the documents. Most important, however, Fr. Murphy’s letter was not the deciding factor in the case. This is important since even many of the Pope’s defenders assume that the decision was made because Murphy was ill or dying. But this evidently is not really what happened.
First of all, it is clear that in the early stages, that Bertone actually helped the trial process along by waiving the statute of limitations reporting offenses of this kind; this is revealed by his letter to Bishop Raphael Fliss of Superior, where the trial had been transferred. And yet in the same letter, Bertone summarized the contents of Murphy’s letter for the bishop, and suggested to him that before going to trial he might look for other pastoral solutions as outlined in canon law. Fliss wrote back on May 13, 1998, to say that he had considered the matter, but that they had exhausted pastoral solutions and were proceeding to trial. (In fact, the trial was begun after decades of inaction by the diocese).
The most crucial document in the case, however, is the only one in the NYT dossier that is not in English — the minutes, in Italian, of the meeting in the office of the CDF a few days later, on May 30, 1998, attended by the three U.S. bishops involved, Bertone and other Vatican officials and priests. A copy was sent to Weakland after the meeting. The document is crucial because it was in this meeting that the final decisions were made, or at least the way things would be decided were made clear. It also clearly gives the CDF’s own perspective on the case. But the translation supplied in the dossier, which was done by computer in 1998 by Fr. Thomas Brundage, the Judicial Vicar of the Diocese of Milwaukee, does not give a very clear picture, to say the least, of the original minutes.
I got involved in the story when I was reading the documentation myself and saw that what had been said at the meeting wasn’t accurately represented in the translation. Since I’m a professional translator with a pretty thorough knowledge of Italian, I made my own translation, which I sent to the estimable Jimmy Akin, who is working on a meticulous account of the story using the documentation at the National Catholic Register. He plans to use it. I’m also posting it here.
The minutes make it clear that the real motivating factor for the CDF’s actions in discouraging a canonical trial was not Fr. Murphy’s plea for “mercy” – neither his age, his illness nor his letter are directly mentioned in the minutes — but the fact, clearly expressed by Bertone, that there didn’t seem to be enough documentation or evidence in the case to go to trial. Arcbishop Weakland admitted during the meeting that the archdiocese had kept no records of its own investigation back in 1974. The diocese had failed to attempt to bring the case to trial for over 20 years, and it had been 35 years since the first cases of molestation had occurred. For Bertone, this distance in time was “the true problem, even from the canonical side.” It’s fairly easy to read into this a criticism of the diocese of Milwaukee for badly botching the whole business and delaying justice for so long.
The minutes also suggest that the CDF felt that pastoral measures, far from being exhausted, hard barely begun. Particularly noteworthy is Bertone’s very clear indignation at the fact that Fr. Murphy still had any contact with the deaf community in Milwaukee and was still saying Mass there — something that had particularly upset the victims and their families. Bertone told the U.S. bishops in no uncertain terms to put a stop to this.
Finally, reading paragraph 4, it’s clear that the CDF was not ruling out either a trial or laicization in the case (though Bertone’s undersecretary was more hopeful about the possibilities of a trial than he was). Weakland had explained to Vatican officials that Murphy was actually unrepentant. This is a contradiction of what Murphy had said in his letter, though no mention of the letter appears in the minutes, as I have said. The subsequent discussion makes it clear that Bertone and his undersecretary wanted the dioceses to make use of pastoral provisions before, not instead of, going to trial. They urged the bishops to use the threat of a trial or “canonical dismissal from the clerical state” (laicization) to persuade Fr. Murphy to admit to his crimes and realize the grave nature of the evil he had done; something that certainly would have been a help to him as well as those he had molested. Those deciding the case were all priests, after all, and were concerned with Fr. Murphy’s soul as they were for the well-being of his victims.
It’s also important to note that it is not necessary for a priest to have been found guilty in a trial for him to be laicized — this is made clear by the fact that diocesan officials were thinking of beginning the process for Murphy’s laicization even before his trial was fairly underway (NYT documents, p. 68). The Vatican would have to approve such an eventual laicization, but nothing in the minutes or the other documents suggests that they would have refused to do so.
The pastoral solutions envisioned were not really applied because of Murphy’s death. Again, in spite of what the NYT article says, there didn’t seem to be any clear indication or realization by those at the meeting that Fr. Murphy was dying.
In conclusion, though the Congregation may have been initially slow in acting, and Archbishop Weakland was obviously dissatisfied with the results, it’s clear that the blame lies almost entirely with the diocese of Milwaukee itself for failing to act for so many years, not with the CDF, which had been left with the thankless task of picking up the pieces — and now, unfortunately, with taking the blame.
Most of all, it is also clear that there was no refusal of laicization, that the CDF acted responsibly and there is absolutely no evidence of any blameworthy conduct by the future Pope Benedict XVI.
Here are the minutes of the meeting in full. All the emphases are in the original.
Summary of a meeting between the Superiors of the CDF and Their Excellencies the Prelates involved in the case of Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest accused of solicitation in Confession (Prot. No. 111/96).
The meeting took place on Saturday, May 30, 1998 in the office of the CDF. Present for the CDF were: His Excellency, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary, who presided over the meeting, the Rev. Father Gianfranco Girotti, Undersecretary. Don Antonio Manna of the Disciplinary Office, Don Michael Jackels (translator) and Fr. Antonio Ramos. Present were Their Excellencies the prelates who had requested the meeting: His Excellency, Rembert Weakland, Archbishop of Milwaukee (USA), his Auxiliary, His Excellency, Bishop Richard Sklba and His Excellency, Raphael Fliss, Bishop of Superior (USA).
1. His Excellency Archbishop Weakland briefly set forth the previous facts of the case, bring out the following points: 1) there have turned out to be many victims of the abuses by Fr. Murphy, all of them deaf; 2) in 1974, there was an intervention in Fr. Murphy’s case, but nothing had been recorded in the archdiocesan archives (it appears that there was a civil lawsuit, which ended without any penalty being imposed on the accused and the intervention consisted of sending the said priest to another diocese, i.e. Superior); 3) the deaf community is now experiencing great indignation because of this case and refuses any pastoral solution; 4) because of the long period of time that has passed since the events took place, it is no longer possible to begin a civil lawsuit in the state of Wisconsin; 5) Fr. Murphy has no sense of remorse and does not seem to realize the gravity of what he has done. In addition, 6) there is the danger of great scandal is the case is publicized by the press. According to the testimonies that have been collected, Fr. Murphy’s misdeeds had their origins in Confession.
2. His Excellency the Secretary of the CDF – stressing both the long period of time that has now passed (more than 35 years!) from when the events took place, which constitutes the true problem even on the canonical side, and the fact that there have been no reports of other crimes perpetrated or scandals created by Murphy during these years in Superior – maintains that there is insufficient information to instruct a canonical process. Nevertheless, he stresses, it is unacceptable for him [Murphy] to be able to go and celebrate the Eucharist in the deaf community in Milwaukee; it will be necessary, therefore, to impede him, having recourse also to some penal remedies. For precautionary reasons, he can be ordered to celebrate the Eucharist only in the diocese of Superior, especially since this is agreed to both by his Ordinary i.e. the Archbishop of Milwaukee and the Ordinary of the place where he resides. But such a provision must be communicated to him in writing. 
3. In regard to the possibility of a canonical process for the crime of solicitation in Confession, His Excellency the Secretary draws attention to some problems that it presents: 1) first of all the difficulty of proving such a crime, the interpretation of which will have to be made in stricto sensu [in the strict sense]; the difficulty that deaf people have in furnishing proof and testimonies without aggravating matters , keeping in mind both the limits inherent in their disability and the distance of the events in time. Nevertheless, he stresses, it will be necessary to make Murphy reflect seriously on the grave nature of the evil he has done and on the fact that he will have to give proofs of reformation. 3) He mentions finally the broad right of [self]-defense that exists in the U.S. and the difficulties that would be put forward by the lawyers in this direction.
4. His Excellency Archbishop Weakland commits himself to try to obtain from Father Murphy – whom he compares to a “difficult” child – a declaration of repentance; all three psychologists who have examined him consider him a “typical” pedophile, who therefore “considers himself a victim.” In this regard, the Under-Secretary [of the CDF] Father Gianfranco Girotti, stresses that the said priest will have to give clear signs of repentance, “otherwise we will have to have recourse to a trial.” His Excellency the Secretary [i.e. Bertone] proposes imposing on him a period of spiritual retreat together with a salutary admonition in order to be able to understand whether he really is repentant or not, otherwise, he would expose himself to the risk of having more rigorous measures imposed on him, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state. He then advises entrusting him to a priest as his spiritual director, with meetings every one or two months.
5. His Excellency the Secretary finally sums up the two central points of the line to be followed in regard to the priest, in a word: 1) the territorial restriction of the celebration of the Eucharist and 2) the admonition to induce him to show remorse.
Before the conclusion of the meeting, His Excellency Archbishop Weakland thought it important to restate that it will be difficult to make the deaf community understand the slight extent of these provisions.
(1) Bishop Sklba’s own notes from the meeting add a bit more to this: “Archbishop Bertone noted that the disobedience of any precept forbidding contact with community members could be the basis for another canonical process.” (p. 61 of NYT documentation). In fact, both Weakland and Sklba had forbidden Murphy to have contact with the deaf in Milwaukee, but he had evidently disobeyed them (p. 37)
(2) aggravare i fatti. This is a difficult passage, and I’m not sure what is meant. The words could be very general, but they could bear the interpretation that because of their difficulty in communication, the deaf people could make Fr. Murphy’s misdeeds seem worse than they were. From the context it really isn’t clear.[Update: this is what I originally wrote; recently in an audio interview, Archbishop Weakland said that the deaf community in Milwaukee was deeply divided on this case; many of the older people disbelieved the victims and believed Fr. Murphy. If so, the victims' testimony against him could well have deepened the divide, and perhaps this is what Bertone was referring to when he mentioned the testimony "aggravating matters."]
Update: Monday, April 5: Jimmy’s piece is up! It’s really great and very detailed. Don’t miss it.
Update: Wed April 7. Our story has been picked up all over the Internet — including the Catholic News Agency!
Plus an Italian paper has now independently noticed how the bad translation distorts the truth (though I did it first).
Update, April 7: The Wall Street Journal has an article with still more documents on the case, making it clear how the bishops of Milwaukee and Superior had previously tried to prevent Fr. Murphy from going to Milwaukee and had imposed other restrictions on him.
Update, April 8: Now the excellent Get Religion blog has a full story on the work that Jimmy and I have done. I also have some comments there.
Update: April 13: I’ve even been linked to by a French blog! Magnifique!
I have been periodically correcting and updating this piece, and may yet do more.