Last weekend, the Anglo-Saxon world was white with rage against Pope Benedict XVI. The cause? Two articles in the New York Times, 24 March 2010, which claimed to prove that the Pope was himself part of the cover-up of the crime of sexual abuse against children committed by clerics.
The most inflammatory article dealt with one Fr Lawrence C. Murphy. The subheading read: “Vatican officials, including the future Pope Benedict XVI, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even after warnings from several bishops, church files shows.” The heading in The Irish Times was: “Pope did not respond to bishop’s alert on abuser.”
The journalist who wrote the NYT article, Laurie Goldstein, claims that she was basing her claims on “church files”. How reliable is her evidence? Fr Thomas Brundage presided over the trail against Fr. Murphy. On 29th March, he wrote an article in his diocesan newspaper Catholic Anchor to refute her claims. He asserts that he has been “liberally and often inaccurately quoted in the New York Times and in more than 100 other newspapers and on-line periodicals”. The fact is, Fr Brundage wrote: “I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31, 1997 handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people’.” It should be noted, in passing, that no figure of the number of victims was given.
Fr Brundage continues: “The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. … I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by a [source unknown] to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct”. This is a scathing indictment of contemporary journalism.
The day after the claims were made, both the Italian daily Avvenire and Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, the Pope’s Press Officer, refuted them on the basis of reliable sources. Yet, there has been no correction of the false claims. What are the facts?
In 1974, the Archbishop of Milwaukee removed Fr Murphy from his post after accusations against Fr Murphy were first made to civil authorities, who, tragically, did not file charges. Twenty years later, according to Brundage, “courageous action on behalf of the victims (and often their wives) led the Archdiocese … to revisit the matter in 1996”. It became obvious that strong and swift action should be taken.” With the consent of his (new) Archbishop, Rembrant Weakland, Brundage recalls, he and his colleagues began an investigation. They proceeded with a trial against Murphy, presided over by Brundage himself. Between 1996 and August 1998, the trial judge interviewed about a dozen victims, “gut-wrenching” was how Brundage described his interviews. In the summer of 1998, he ordered Murphy to be present at a deposition at the chancery in Milwaukee. Soon after, Brundage received a letter from Murphy’s doctor saying that Murphy was unfit to travel. A week later, Murphy died of natural causes.
What of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger? “I have no reason”, Brundage replies, to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.”
Archbishop Weakland wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger on 17 July 1996, what the time was in charge of. the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). CDF has responsibility, among other things, for the crime of solicitation in the confessional. (At the time, all other cases of sexual abuse by clerics were dealt with by another Vatican body, the Apostolic Signatura.) Weakland was looking for guidance. His letter was given to the Secretary of CDF, Archbishop Bertone. (It seems that Weakland also wrote to the Apostolic Signatura.) On 15 October 1996, Archbishop Weakland ordered a judicial trial. On the 10 December, the Archdiocese informed Murphy that an ecclesiastical penal trial had been initiated against him. The archdiocesan tribunal case synopsis noted that, in January 1998, Fr Murphy himself wrote to the Vatican congregation stating that the peremptory period [in civil law, the statute of limitations] and requesting an exemption from the case being heard. According to the same source (the archdiocesan synopsis), the Vatican congregation [CDF] rejected Murphy’s request, stating that there are no set time periods for cases of solicitation. The synopsis concludes by expressing the hope that an official judgement would be made in August 1998.
The above account does not mention the meeting that took place in the Vatican between Archbishop Bertone, other members of the CDF, and the two American bishops involved. According to the record of that meeting, as reported in Avvenire, doubts were raised about carrying out a canonical trial considering the difficulty of reconstructing what happened 35 years ago, especially with regard to crimes committed in the confessional. Also discussed was the fact that a civil trial was no longer possible, given the long period of time since the crimes were committed and the generous law of defence in the USA. Also noted was the fact that no fresh charges had been brought against Fr Murphy since 1974. Among the decisions affecting Fr Murphy were considerations of both a pastoral and of a penal nature, including the threat of dismissal from the clerical state, in other words, being defrocked.
According to the account in The Irish Times (26 March), Bertone (he was not a Cardinal at the time) instructed Weakland to begin secret disciplinary proceedings against Fr Murphy. “But”, the article claims, Cardinal Bertone backtracked after Fr Murphy wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger pleading for mercy because he was old, ill and had repented.” This is quite simply false. The writer also claims that “Cardinal Bertone asked the diocese to stop the process and instead only use pastoral means…” This is misleadingly inaccurate. According to a letter he wrote on 28 September 1998, Archbishop Bertone noted that, with the death of Murphy, the case of accusation against him “is, in effect, closed”. In other words, he understood the trial to be still on-going at the time of Murphy’s death. The trial judge, Fr Brundage, confirms this, 1 “The fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months if not longer.”
With regard to the German accusation, I have examined the case as outlined in the NYT article in great detail and found, again, no real evidence only innuendo and tendentious reporting.