The Murphy Case:
What Really Happened inside the CDF

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 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 if 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. [1]

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 [2], 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.


The Murphy Case:
What Really Happened inside the CDF

  1. Thanks, Lori, for weighing in on this. It seems to me that the New York Times (and other major media outlets) are more concerned with attacking the Church than they are with reporting the actual facts of the matter. It’s sad, but it’s not surprising. There is an underlying current of anti-Catholicism among the so-called “intellectual elites” in this nation — from the very first. Such anti-Catholicism rears its ugly head (more than usual) a couple of times a century — and right now, we’re in some of the worst of it.

  2. Lori,
    You say above: “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…” As a penalty for a crime, laicization could only be imposed after a trial (cf. c. 1342.2 in the Code of Canon Law). That has now changed. But, according to the law in force at the time, a full trial needed to be conducted. After the diocesan level trial, the priest could appeal to “the Vatican.”
    It is true that a cleric can ask to be “laicized” and this is, obviously, handled outside of a trial. Apparently, the cleric in question had no inkling to ask to be laicized. Therefore, a trial was mandatory. I must admit, though, that perhaps the 1962 norms allowed for an “administrative” laicization. I do not think it did but I could be mistaken.
    Thanks for the good work.

  3. Excellent work. Let us be hopeful that these insidious lies against the Holy Father and the members of the CDF will be retracted.

    Could I draw your attention to the article by William McGurn in today`s Wall Street Journal entitled “The Pope and the New York Times” at's_Most_Popular

    He states:

    “Martin Nussbaum, a lawyer who is not involved in the Murphy case but who has defended other dioceses and churches in sexual abuse suits, emailed me four interesting letters sent to Murphy from three Wisconsin bishops. These documents are not among those posted online by the Times. They are relevant, however, because they refute the idea that Murphy went unpunished.

    In fact, the letters from these bishops—three in 1993 and one in 1995, after fresh allegations of Murphy’s misconduct—variously informed the priest that he was not to celebrate the sacraments in public, not to have any unsupervised contact with minors, and not to work in any parish religious education program.”

    The four letters sent to Murphy by the Bishops are exhibited on the site.

    It is clear that after 1974 there were fresh allegations of misconduct against Murphy in the early 1990s and that restrictions were imposed as a result.

    These letters are totally contrary to what Murphy said in his letter of appeal to the CDF dated 12th January 1998 – paragraph 2:

    “There have been no further accusations against me since I left St John`s in 1974″

    The citation against Weakland was in respect of acts committed in the period 1950 to 1974. No mention was made of the later allegations. The Libellus in 1996 against Murphy states (page 32):

    “the Reverend Lawrence C. Murphy, a priest incardinated in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and domiciled in the Diocese of Superior, who stands accused of certainoffenses cited in Canons 1387, 1388.1 and 1395.2, did in fact commit the delicts of which he is accused, namely, that over the period of several years encompassing his tenure at St. John School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, [that is from 1950 to 1974] Wisconsin, he did engage in a pattern of behavior.”

    Murphy pleaded time bar because the alleged acts of misconduct were in the period 1950-74.

    At the meeting of the CDF Archbishop Bertone and the others appeared not to know of the more recent alleged acts of misconduct.

    Otherwise why would they constantly stress that the alleged acts of misconduct occurred thirty five years before.

    Further Bertone and the CDF did not appear to know that there Murphy already was restricted to acting within the Diocese of Superior.

    The Italian version of the CDF memo states:

    “2. His Excellency the Secretary of the CDF – stressing both … 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.”

    The “Yahoo version of the same sentence in paragraph 2 states:

    “2. The Secretary CDF underlined the long period of time by now departed (more than 35 years!) from when they took place, that it also constitutes a true
    canonical problem, and the fact that no other accusations news of crimes or scandals have arisen from during the years to he has been in Superior and that
    there are not enough elements to instruct a canonical trial.”

    The Yahoo version in this regard is pretty unintelligible.

    If the CDF did know, why did Bertone recommend a territorial restriction be placed on him to restrict his celebration of the Eucharist to the Diocese of Superior: see paragraph 2 of the CDF`s memo in Italian of the meeting

    The Italian version of the Memo states:

    “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. ”

    The “Yahoo version” states:

    “Yet it notices and unacceptable that he can celebrate the Eucharist in the community of the deaf community of Milwaukee; the diocese will need therefore to prevent him from celebrating Eucharist, and may also recourse to some penal remedies.”

    Further why did the Italian memorandum state as part of its conclusion:

    “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”

    Perhaps the reason is to be found in Paragraph 3 of the Italian memorandum:

    “Nevertheless, he [Bertone] 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.”

    If Bertone and the other members of the CDF had known of the Bishop`s four letters, the last being in 1995 and of the allegations of misconduct on the part of Murphy which had led up to them it is hard to see how they thought it was going to be hard to see why they thought that Murphy would be able to discharge the onus of proof that since 1974 he had reformed.

    One wonders why these four letters of the Bishops to Murphy and the events leading up to them were withheld from Archbishop Bertone and the other members of the CDF.

  4. Terry, I don’t see that the letters were withheld from the CDF. You have to remember that the documentation at the NYT, as well as these letters, was supplied by lawyers in civil lawsuits, who probably got hold of them during the preparation for the case. This doesn’t mean that they themselves had all the documents in existence in the case. In fact, they might well have some that they are withholding from publication themselves, including these (especially since they are the ones that would tend to exonerate the bishops). It doesn’t mean that the bishops didn’t have these documents or didn’t share them with the CDF. I also don’t see that the documents contain anything referring to more recent allegations of wrongdoing on Murphy’s part. They simply speak of his “past misdeeds.”

  5. Good point, Dan. Yes, laicization can be voluntary. I should have mentioned that according to the documents, the bishops in Murphy’s case were trying to get him to sign an application (if that’s what it’s called) for voluntary laicization, but obviously, he wasn’t having any of it.

    Something else that I read was that in cases where there is “moral certainty” of the priest’s guilt in an offense, the bishop can apply the penalty without a trial. I expect this refers to cases where the priest has confessed, the equivalent to a guilty plea in a criminal court, after which the sentence can be applied.

  6. Honestly- I wish you had gone through the interviewers notes with a fine tooth comb- the hand written ones where the man writing the report had to write out that that priest denied hitting a child on the penis with a belt, and all of the other things he did or denied. You are sitting here parsing the wrong things. You and others like yourself, apologetics for the corporation that is the church, disturb me. Rather than gon on about the letter of the law- maybe examine the spirits crushed?

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