What did Cardinal Ratzinger really know and do? — The Father Murphy NYT story is wrong

From the National Catholic Register, here (bold emphasis mine):

Cardinal Ratzinger An Evil Monster?


by Jimmy Akin Tuesday, March 30, 2010 9:59 AM Comments (118)

Welcome readers of The Anchoress and Andrew Sullivan.


The level of vitriol being directed at Pope Benedict by the mainstream media right now is truly extraordinary. It’s primarily drive by desire for cash (scandal sells), followed closely by hatred, along with a hefty dose of ignorance.

Reading Maureen Dowd’s latest opinion column is just a cringe-inducing experience.

Even in ostensible news pieces the misrepresentation of facts is staggering. That’s where the ignorance comes in. Reporters in the mainstream media are seldom well versed in the matters they are reporting on, and it is clear that—even when outright malice is excluded from the equation—they simply do not have the background to properly understand or report on how the Vatican works and what its actions mean.

I am not saying that the Holy See’s handling of abuse cases can’t be legitimately criticized. I’m not saying that then-Cardinal Ratzinger/now-Pope Benedict XVI didn’t experience a learning curve on this point. And I don’t know what else is out there that remains to be discovered.

But I am saying that the media is getting this story wrong, particularly in the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, the American priest whose case was dealt with by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when Cardinal Ratzinger was its head.

The New York Times has done a great service to those wanting to look into this story by putting online a large number of primary source documents pertaining to the case. No doubt they mean these to incriminate Pope Benedict, but if you read them carefully—and if you know the relevant background—they don’t. (The documents are also posted here in .pdf format.)

So let’s look at the facts of the case in light of the documents:

Lawrence Murphy was born in 1925 and was ordained a priest in 1950. He served at St. John’s School for the Deaf from 1963 to 1974, during which time he later admitted to having abused 19 boys (press reports are saying as many as 200, but there is speculation involved there).

In the mid 1970s his victims complained to the police, but this did not result in a trial.

Note well: This is not a case of the diocese preventing the police from knowing about it. They already knew.

His victims also hung “most wanted” posters of him outside Milwaukee’s cathedral to urge Church authorities to deal with the situation. According to a document from the 1990s produced in preparation for a Church trial, virtually no documentation was available on the details of what the Milwaukee archdiocese did regarding the case back in the 1970s, but the result is known in broad brush.

Murphy was removed from the school for the deaf and given no further pastoral assignment. He moved back to his family residence, where he lived with his mother. Except for occasional visits to his brother in Houston, he lived in this house for the rest of his life.

He was never granted a pastoral assignment by the diocese of Superior, in which he was now living, but he occasionally said Mass at parishes and was used in some capacity at retreats for deaf people, due to his ability to communicate in sign language.

There were no further allegations of sexual abuse against him.

In 1995, some of Murphy’s victims and their lawyers contacted the now-archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland (ironic, yes, but that’s a different issue), reporting Murphy’s actions from the 1970s.

In December of 1995, Weakland ordered a preliminary investigation to determine whether the allegations had merit. It was concluded that they did.

However, because the charges against Murphy included the abuse of the sacrament of confession—an offense that was (and is) reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—Weakland wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger in July 1996 asking for guidance in how to proceed.

Note this well: Back in 1996 the CDF did not have a mandate to handle cases of sexual abuse by priests. It does now. It received that mandate later. But in 1996 it did not have one. The reason that Weakland notified the CDF was not because the abuse of minors was involved but because the abuse of the sacrament of confession was involved.

Weakland had not received a reply by October of 1996, and he began preparations for a canonical trial of Murphy.

In February 1997 Murphy raised the point that his crimes were committed before the 1983 Code of Canon Law was issued and that under the legal norms in force at the time, the statute of limitations had run out.

This caused Weakland to contact the Holy See with a request that the statute of limitations be waived so that the trial could proceed. He sent the request in March 1997 to the Apostolic Signatura, noting that he hadn’t heard from the CDF.

Since the case involved offenses reserved to the CDF, the Signatura promptly forwarded the request there, and within two weeks Weakland had a reply from the CDF.

The reply came from the secretary of the congregation, (now Cardinal) Tarcisio Bertone.

Here are two important points:

1) The delay in response. Weakland first wrote to the CDF in July 1996. He got his reply (after a further prompting) in March 1997—nine months later.

If you want to criticize, here is a possible thing to criticize. The CDF could have gotten back to him in a more timely manner. On the other hand, the CDF does not have a huge staff but it does have a huge mission as the Church’s theological quality control department. I think this one is debatable.

2) Note that the reply came from Bertone, not Ratzinger. This is actually what you would expect. The way these dicasteries work, while the Cardinal Prefect (Ratzinger, in this case) is in charge, it is the Secretary (Bertone) who is the actual “show-runner”—the one who oversees the day-to-day functioning of the department. So while you would write to Ratzinger as a matter of protocol, you would expect him to hand the matter off to Bertone and to hear back from the latter. Indeed, after deference to Ratzinger has been paid by writing the first letter to him, Weakland and Bishop Fliss of Superior correspond directly with Bertone.

This creates a situation where we don’t really know what Ratzinger’s involvement was. In the documentation presented by the New York Times Ratzinger never replies. It’s always Bertone who does so. Bertone (not Ratzinger) even chairs a meeting at the Vatican on the matter.

Did Cardinal Ratzinger even see the initial letter regarding Murphy? Maybe. Or maybe it was given to Bertone as part of his role as show-runner. Maybe the mail room at the CDF automatically gives correspondence addressed to the Cardinal Prefect to the Secretary, who serves as his filter. I don’t know. (Maybe someone who knows such things can clarify in the combox. Please cite sources.)

Incidentally, note that in his statement, press spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi carefully and repeatedly talks about what “the Congregation” did regarding the Murphy case, not what Cardinal Ratzinger did.

Guess why.

So we don’t know if Ratzinger saw the letter, or if he was told about it, or what if anything he did.

That’s important to how we evaluate the story. Criticize the way these departments are run if you want, but we don’t have evidence that Ratzinger did anything in bad conscience.

He’s also been the leading change-agent pressing for tougher measures against abusive priests for nearly ten years.

So what did Bertone say in his reply to Weakland’s request for a waiver of the statute of limitations? He said for Weakland to continue the judicial process against Murphy, thus waiving the statute of limitations, while asking him to pay attention to certain prior norms that must be read in light of current law.

In other words, Bertone said, “Go ahead. Prosecute.”

Scarcely anything to fault Ratzinger for here.

So things proceed with the potential canonical trial of Murphy until January 1998 (by which time the case had been transferred to the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, in whose territory Murphy was residing). In this month, Murphy writes his own letter to the CDF.

As you’d expect, he addresses it to Cardinal Ratzinger, and as as you’d expect, Bishop Fliss of Superior (now handling the case) gets a reply from Bertone.

This is the crux letter—where people in the press want to find fault with Cardinal Ratzinger.

There are, again, a number of important things to note:

1) The text of the Murphy letter itself. Mainstream media sources will quote only a sound bite or two (at best; some flat-out misrepresent it), but thanks to the Internet and the NYT’s putting the document online, you can read it for yourself and make your own judgments.


2) In the letter, Murphy asks the CDF to declare the action of the diocese of Superior (to whom the case has been transferred) invalid because the statute to limitations when the crimes were committed has passed. The CDF refuses to do so in Bertone’s reply and suggests that the case be handled in another way (more on that in a moment). The point is: The CDF refuses to invalidate the pending action of the diocese of Superior against Murphy. No ground of faulting Ratzinger there.

3) Murphy also makes a mercy-based request to the CDF not to be subjected to a trial at this point in his life. He writes:

I am seventy-two years of age, your Eminence [Cardinal Ratzinger], and I am in poor health. I have just recently suffered another stroke which has left me in a weakened state. I have followed all the directives of both Archbishop Cousins and now Archbishop Weakland. I have repented of any of my past transgressions, and have been living peaceably in northern Wisconsin for twenty-four years. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.

So when the response came from Archbishop Bertone, what did it say?

It did not prohibit a canonical trial. It didn’t say that this couldn’t be done. But it did hint at another path, saying:

[T]his Congregation invites Your Excellency [Raphael Michael Fliss of Superior, WI] to give careful consideration to what canon 1341 proposes as pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.

Canon 1341 provides that:

An ordinary is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.

So Bertone urges the relevant ordinary (now Fliss due to the change of diocese in which the trial would occur) to heed what the Code of Canon Law says regarding when to use a judicial process. Criticize the Code if you want, but we don’t have evidence of wrongdoing on Ratzinger’s part.

Note that Bertone doesn’t say Fliss can’t or shouldn’t go forward with the trial. He just says think about this canon and if there is another way to resolve the matter.

In May Fliss concluded that the scandal in the deaf community was such that the trial needed to go forward.

At the very end of the same month, he and Weakland were in Rome for their ad limina visit, and they had a meeting with Bertone about the Murphy case. Ratzinger was not present.

Bertone again did not say that the trial could not proceed. He pointed out certain canonical and practical difficulties it would involve, but he did not prohibit it. He further recommended that Murphy be examined by three psychiatrists, that he be assigned a spiritual director to keep tabs on him, that he be prohibited from doing anything with the deaf community, and that he be allowed to celebrate Mass only with permission given in writing by both Weakland and Fliss.

This seems to be the last action the CDF took on the matter—except for forwarding the minutes of the meeting a few weeks later (July 1998).

The next month, August 1998, Murphy died.

He really was in poor health.

Murphy had written his letter of appeal—the crux letter that the media is up in arms about—in January of 1998 and in August of 1998 he was dead.

One can fault any number of things about process or policy in this case, but we don’t have evidence that Ratzinger did anything in bad conscience. He didn’t stop the trial against Murphy from proceeding. At most (attributing everything to him that Bertone did) he recommended waiving the judicial proceeding due to the man’s advanced age and ill health while simultaneously taking steps to ensure that the man would not be a threat to anyone as he lived out his final months in seclusion.

Civil prosecutors make these kinds of judgments all the time, deciding whether it is really worth it to devote the resources to proceed to a full trial when the accused is elderly, not a threat, and likely to die during the proceedings.

They aren’t portrayed in the press as evil monsters, and from the facts of this case, Pope Benedict shouldn’t either.

Your thoughts?

See also: EVIL MONSTER UPDATE: THE INSIDE STORY, quoted entirely below:

Evil Monster Update: The Inside Story


by Jimmy Akin Thursday, April 01, 2010 7:24 AM Comments (2)

I’d like to thank The Anchoress and Andrew Sullivan for linking my previous piece on Cardinal Ratzinger and the Murphy case, and for the kind things they said about it.

There is more to say about the story. Quite a bit, actually. In particular, I’ll be responding to Sullivan, and I’ll be able to report on the German story, but first there are some additional facts to get on the table regarding the Wisconsin one.

Let’s start with a piece by Fr. Thomas Brundage (pictured), who writes:

I was the Judicial Vicar for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee from 1995-2003. During those years, I presided over four canonical criminal cases, one of which involved Father Lawrence Murphy. Two of the four men died during the process.

Interesting that Brundage says two of the four men died during the process. Contrary to what you would think from press reports, Murphy appears to be one of the two, given what shortly will become clear.

In any event, a 50% death rate seems to indicate aggressive prosecution of men even when they are quite old or in ill health. So already a picture is forming of Brundage as presiding over a vigorous court.

He has not been pleased with the New York Times’ (and other outlets’) reportage on the Murphy case:

As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing from a sense of duty to the truth.

The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.


In 1996, I was introduced to the story of Father Murphy, formerly the principal of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. It had been common knowledge for decades that during Father Murphy’s tenure at the school (1950-1974) there had been a scandal at St. John’s involving him and some deaf children. The details, however, were sketchy at best.

Courageous advocacy on behalf of the victims (and often their wives), led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to revisit the matter in 1996.

“Courageous advocacy” suggests that there was a struggle requiring courage to get the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to act, presumably this involved the argument that Fr. Murphy’s crimes were committed long ago and that he was no longer in the diocese. Nevertheless . . .

In internal discussions of the curia for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it became obvious that we needed to take strong and swift action with regard to the wrongs of several decades ago.

So far so good, but note this:

With the consent of then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, we began an investigation into the allegations of child sexual abuse as well as the violation of the crime of solicitation within the confessional by Father Murphy.

Courageous advocacy . . . discussions in the curia regarding swift and strong action . . . “consent” of Weakland. Fr. Brundage is by no means saying this, and I could be misreading, but it sounds as if the primary momentum for prosecution originated in Weakland’s curia rather than with Weakland himself.

That would make sense given that Weakland himself had spent nearly half a million dollars in diocesan funds as hush money to keep a former homosexual lover from suing him for sexual abuse from around 1980.

There might be reasons he wouldn’t want to go prying into decades-old priestly sex cases. Who knows what could get unearthed in the process?

But the intensity of Murphy’s victims and the firmness of the curia was such that . . .

We proceeded to start a trial against Father Murphy. I was the presiding judge in this matter and informed Father Murphy that criminal charges were going to be levied against him with regard to child sexual abuse and solicitation in the confessional.

In my interactions with Father Murphy, I got the impression I was dealing with a man who simply did not get it. He was defensive and threatening.

Between 1996 and August, 1998, I interviewed, with the help of a qualified interpreter, about a dozen victims of Father Murphy. These were gut-wrenching interviews. In one instance the victim had become a perpetrator himself and had served time in prison for his crimes. I realized that this disease is virulent and was easily transmitted to others. I heard stories of distorted lives, sexualities diminished or expunged. These were the darkest days of my own priesthood, having been ordained less than 10 years at the time. Grace-filled spiritual direction has been a Godsend.

I also met with a community board of deaf Catholics. They insisted that Father Murphy should be removed from the priesthood and highly important to them was their request that he be buried not as a priest but as a layperson. I indicated that a judge, I could not guarantee the first request and could only make a recommendation to the latter request.

In the summer of 1998, I ordered Father Murphy to be present at a deposition at the chancery in Milwaukee. I received, soon after, a letter from his doctor that he was in frail health and could travel not more than 20 miles (Boulder Junction to Milwaukee would be about 276 miles). A week later, Father Murphy died of natural causes in a location about 100 miles from his home.

It would be interesting to learn where that was.

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, 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. “ Also quoted is this: “Children were approached within the confessional where the question of circumcision began the solicitation.”

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. 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. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source 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.

Yeah. What is it with the mainstream media? How did they get so arrogant, or sloppy, or both?

Now here comes a very interesting point, but first let’s go back to the NYT documentation for a moment.

You will recall that there was a meeting at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was presided over by (now Cardinal) Bertone, who did not tell Weakland, Sklba, and Fliss (the American bishops involved in the case) that they couldn’t proceed with the case but who pointed out some difficulties and made some recommendations. (More on that in a new post soon. Very interesting stuff coming up on that meeting.)

When they got back home, Weakland sent a letter to Bertone saying that he (Weakland) had decided to abate the proceedings against Fr. Murphy, and that he had instructed Brundage to do so.

But Brundage says he never got the message:

Additionally, in the documentation in a letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland stated that he had instructed me to abate the proceedings against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, however, died two days later and 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.

So this is why Murphy was one of two defendants who apparently died during a case that Brundage was overseeing.

Weakland may have decided to abate the proceedings, but Brundage didn’t get the message before Murphy died. Furthermore . . .

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.

So Brundage was thoroughly committed to seeing this thing through. Again, aggressive judge; passive Weakland.

Now what does Brundage have to say about Cardinal Ratzinger’s role in all this?

Second, with regard to the role of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in this matter, I have no reason to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.

As we saw in the previous post.

Also, there’s this note on the timeliness of the CDF’s reply to Weakland, which took nine months. I didn’t mention it in my previous post, but by Vatican standards, that’s actually rather quick (Americans have a whole different perspective on the use of time and what counts as efficient). Brundage, though, makes the point explicit:

Third, the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001. Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved. I have no doubt that this was the work of then Cardinal Ratzinger.

I know the defenses that would be made on behalf of the Rota. Small staff. Huge Church. Also, I’m an American and I want everything done yesterday. Fine. This is a point on which there can be legitimate disagreement. Should Americans have more patience? Maybe. Should the Vatican ramp up its staff to correspond to the size of the Church it’s got? Maybe.

My point is: As open to criticism as the CDF’s initial nine month delay might be, it was actually relatively swift. (And, y’know, things tend to drag in the secular courts, too. They’re not often doing drumheads these days.)

I’ll have more soon, but for now let’s let Fr. Brundage have the last word:

Fourth, Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.

Finally, over the last 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the church to avoid harm to children. Potential seminarians receive extensive sexual-psychological evaluation prior to admission. Virtually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on the safe environment for children. There have been very few cases of recent sexual abuse of children by clergy during the last decade or more.

Catholic dioceses all across the country have taken extraordinary steps to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults. As one example, which is by no means unique, is in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, where I currently work. Here, virtually every public bathroom in parishes has a sign asking if a person has been abuse by anyone in the church. A phone number is given to report the abuse and almost all church workers in the archdiocese are required to take yearly formation sessions in safe environment classes. I am not sure what more the church can do.

To conclude, the events during the 1960’s and 1970’s of the sexual abuse of minors and solicitation in the confessional by Father Lawrence Murphy are unmitigated and gruesome crimes. On behalf of the church, I am deeply sorry and ashamed for the wrongs that have been done by my brother priests but realize my sorrow is probably of little importance 40 years after the fact. The only thing that we can do at this time is to learn the truth, beg for forgiveness, and do whatever is humanly possible to heal the wounds. The rest, I am grateful, is in God’s hands.


One thought on “What did Cardinal Ratzinger really know and do? — The Father Murphy NYT story is wrong

  1. If you noticed, it’s really not about Pope Ratzinger as a person, it’s about what he stands for as a Catholic and what he represents. People are against Catholicism and they will do everything to destroy the Church. We are Jesus’ Church and Jesus promised: “The gates of Hell will not overpower it”. Let us keep our faith. God bless.

What say you???

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s