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What Benedict Knew When: Wisconsin Priest Abuses 200 Deaf Boys; Ratzinger Informed

Today’s big news: a blockbuster exposé by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, showing the direct involvement of the current pope in shielding an American priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, who abused at least 200 deaf boys from the 1950s up to his death in 1998.  Files obtained by the Times show Cardinal Ratzinger receiving correspondence about this priest from Wisconsin bishops, including Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee, who wrote Cardinal Ratzinger twice in 1996, when Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to inform him about Fr. Murphy.

Following Weakland’s letters, Ratzinger’s second in command Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican secretary of state, told the bishops of Wisconsin to begin a secret canonical trial to consider Fr. Murphy’s defrocking.  Murphy then wrote to Ratzinger asking that the trial be stopped, and stating that he had repented and the time allotted for a trial in the church’s statute of limitations had run out.

Murphy told Ratzinger, “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.  I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”  Cardinal Bertone then halted the process and Murphy was not brought to trial.

Allegations of Murphy’s abuse of boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, emerged by 1955, five years after Murphy was assigned as chaplain to the school.  Fr. David Walsh, a chaplain to the deaf community in Chicago, received allegations from former students of St. John’s in 1955 that Murphy had abused them, and reported these allegations to the archbishop of Milwaukee, Albert Meyer.  Archbishop Meyer reported to Walsh that, having been confronted with the allegations, Murphy denied and then admitted them.

Murphy continued uninterrupted as chaplain at St. John’s up to 1974.  Documents in the files obtained by the Times show three successive archbishops in Wisconsin being informed that Fr. Murphy was sexually abusing children, but never reporting the abuse to criminal or civil authorities.

Instead of being disciplined, Father Murphy was moved by Archbishop William E. Cousins of Milwaukee to northern Wisconsin in 1974, where he spent 24 more years working freely with children in parishes, schools and, according to one pending lawsuit, a juvenile detention center.

Fr. Murphy died in 1998, still a priest.  As the Times notes, “. . . [T]he effort to dismiss Father Murphy came to a sudden halt after the priest appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.”

Church officials were informed of this priest’s abuse by 1955, and he continued in ministry—with unhindered access to children—up to 1998.

Fr. Murphy was permitted to remain in ministry where he had the possibility to abuse children sexually with no penalties for 33 years. With the active knowledge of the Vatican. With the active complicity of the Vatican.

Of the present pope, Benedict XVI. Who told the Irish bishops, when the abuse cover-up in that nation began to be exposed, “It’s important to establish the truth of what happened.”

If you have the stomach for it, read through the 86 pages of documentation appended to the Times article.  It’s eye-opening, vis-à-vis the ability of the hierarchy to 1) put the image (and assets) of the church ahead of the welfare of children, 2) shield a priest known to be abusing children for over 30 years, and 3) evade laws criminalizing sexual misconduct against children, while representing itself as the guardian of morals.

For valuable commentary on this story, see the statements of Peter Isely and David Clohessy of SNAP at the SNAP website.

For a glimpse of how the public is reacting to the revelation, check out the thread of comments following Huffington Post’s AP summary of the story.

And as you read, don’t forget that information about the record of Fr. Peter Hullerman, the abusive priest reassigned to parish work when Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, is still accumulating.   Credible evidence is now suggesting that Fr. Hullerman was permitted to abuse children for over two decades.  The German government is now weighing the possibility of criminal charges against Hullerman.

Hullerman was still in parish ministry until two weeks ago, when news of this story broke in the media.

As today’s New York Times editorial entitled “The Pope and the Pedophilia Scandal” states,

It was hard to see how Vatican officials did not draw the lessons of the grueling scandal in the United States, where more than 700 priests were dismissed over a three-year period. But then we read Laurie Goodstein’s disturbing report in The Times on Thursday about how the pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of the children. The report illuminated the kind of behavior the church was willing to excuse to avoid scandal.

The American church’s investigative board of laity cautioned “there must be consequences” for prelates who orchestrated cover-ups. This has not been fulfilled, even though the board criticized management of rogue priests by Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest diocese, and Edward Egan, the former leader of the New York archdiocese. The pope’s expression of “shame and remorse” for the Irish scandal is not to be doubted. But what is most urgently needed was well described by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — “truth and clarity about everything that took place.”

What is most urgently needed: truth and clarity about everything that took place. It is hard to imagine the Vatican (or a large number of bishops, for that matter) hearing those words without dread—without dread of having the truth revealed clearly.

How does a Christian church bring itself to this point?  And how do many of its adherents still find it possible to excuse this behavior, to continue ignoring the voices of survivors of such horrific abuse as if those voices do not and should not count when we talk about what it means to be Catholic, and to blame those calling for truth rather than those who have covered up and enabled the sexual abuse of minors?

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 25 March 2010.

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8 Responses

  1. Yes, the NY Times article says they “began a trial” – but the retort of the Vatican, which I just read – at the bbc or maybe the Guardian – suggests that a trial was only in the “thought experiment” stage (my term for the verbal slight of hand).

    Vatican PR. Learning from tea baggers, they simply rewrite the facts! And pray over them perhaps.

    • It’s horrific, isn’t it, TheraP? Years and years of abuse, unimpeded, while those with the ability to stop it talked about the church’s image and not the children being abused.

      I think we’ll see lots of attempts to spin in coming days. The new head of the Prague diocese has just tried out all the old canards: atheist press trying to destroy the church; only 10 percent of allegations ever proved (!); problem of abuse worse in other institutions than in the Catholic church.

      The CatholicCulture.org website is trying to spin the crisis once again as a gay priests = pedophiles crisis, using the self-reported data of the U.S. bishops–a telegram from the henhouse, in which the fox reports that the hens are doing just fine.

      We’ll see every trick in the book used in coming days to deflect blame from where it clearly lies–with the Vatican and the bishops. And none of this will do anything to retrieve the moral high road for the church, among people who think and care about the truth.

      • The tricks are unlikely to work. People simply do not believe the Vatican any longer. They’ve destroyed their own credibility. So the more tales they spin, the deeper they are digging the hole they’re in. It’s almost ludicrous to see them trying to get out of this like schoolboys. Well, maybe that’s what runs through all of this. Abusing priests acting like bullying schoolboys instead of adults. And the hierarchy acting the same way!

        It’s like an assembly line. The abusers do their thing. And then line moves to the bishops and the cardinals and on up to the Congregation of the Destruction of the Faith, and finally the Pope!

        • I hope you’re right, TheraP, and at one level, I know you’re right: when the rottenness becomes so massive, things will implode, no matter how hard folks work to deny the rottenness and keep the institution propped up.

          Still, what Rome has on its side is massive economic and political power, with extremely powerful allies. Those folks can spin and shift blame masterfully and for a long time.

          But as they do so, what I hope people can remember is this: no matter how many excuses we make, 200 deaf boys were abused by one priest alone. Who was allowed to continue in uninterrupted ministry from 1955 to 1998, with unfettered access to children during all that time. And with the knowledge and consent of the current pope for a part of that time.

          Of the current pope, who has told us it is crucial to know what happened when–to get the facts on the table–if we’re to address the abuse crisis effectively.

  2. Only 10% proved has to do with a number of facts. Even in this current case, civil authorities had to drop the prosecution the Vatican refers to, because of Statute of Limitation issues. Which of course was the Vatican’s justification for it’s own decision.

    The thing is unless a priest admits his guilt, how does one prove these allegations? Most of them probably took the confessional route if they were inclined to ‘fess’ up to anything.

    I’d bet the farm that right now there are heated exchanges going on in the Vatican about how to handle the Legion scandal and some of the big players won’t be clerics.

    • Plus they fail to recognize that it takes time for abuse reports to come in. So they say…. “oh, well, there are not reports in the last 10 years.” Well, duh… in the last 10 years (whenever that might have been) the 8 year-olds got to be 18. And likely they won’t report till they’re 28 or 38. Meanwhile the church that can use scholastic reasoning to a fine degree seems unable to use elementary logic with regard to how abuses happen and reports trickle in.

      • You’re absolutely right, TheraP.

    • Thanks, Colleen. You’re absolutely right: these statistics are extremely misleading due to a variety of reasons.

      First, there’s the fact that no one knows the real number of cases anywhere in the world both now or in the past, due to the church’s secrecy and stonewalling. The data on hand are those the church has been forced to reveal in a few places, fighting tooth and nail all the way.

      Making conclusions on the basis of such limited, controlled, and unrepresentative data is extremely fallacious, because the data are partial.

      Not to mention, the data are being disseminated by the fox guarding the hen house, not by the hens. It’s absurd that each time the American bishops release a new round of reports about abuse cases, for instance, they expect no one to notice that they’re the ones gathering and controling and releasing the data!

      The fox sending a telegram from the hen house to tell us that the hens are doing quite well.

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