Vatican defends decision not to laicise priest who abused deaf
By John Thavis
26 March 2010
The Vatican defended a decision not to laicise a Wisconsin priest who sexually abused deaf children, despite the
recommendation of his bishop that he be removed from the priesthood.
In a statement responding to a report in the New York Times, the Vatican said that by the time it learned of the
case in the late 1990s, the priest was elderly and in poor health. The Vatican eventually suggested that the priest
continue to be restricted in ministry instead of laicised, and he died four months later, the Vatican said.
The Vatican decision not to proceed to a Church trial and possible laicisation came after the priest wrote a personal
appeal to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who was head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation
at the time, the Times article said.
On March 25, the day the article was published, members of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests held
a brief demonstration in front of the Vatican, distributing copies of documents related to the case and calling
on the Pope to disclose how he and the doctrinal congregation handled allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
Vatican officials who spoke on background said the New York Times story was unfair because it ignored the fact
that, at the urging of Cardinal Ratzinger himself, new procedures to deal with priest abusers were put in place
in 2002, including measures making it easier to laicise them.
"This would be handled differently today, based
on jurisprudence and experience," one Vatican official told the American Catholic News Service. "But
you can't accuse people of not applying in 1998 a principle that was established in 2002."
The case involved Fr Lawrence Murphy, who worked at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee from 1950 to 1974. In the
early 1970s, multiple allegations of sexual abuse against the priest were made to civil authorities, who investigated
but never brought charges. He was placed on a leave of absence for a while and later returned to pastoral ministry
in the Diocese of Superior, where he worked until 1993.
The Times story said that according to documents it obtained from lawyers involved in a lawsuit against the Archdiocese
of Milwaukee, then Archbishop Rembert Weakland in 1993 hired a social worker who interviewed Fr Murphy and reported
that the priest had admitted his acts, had probably molested about 200 boys and felt no remorse. The archbishop
placed restrictions on Fr Murphy's ministry.
Archbishop Weakland wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger about the case in 1996 because he thought it might involve "solicitation in the confessional", a sin which because of
its gravity involved the doctrinal congregation.
Later in 1996, the doctrinal congregation told Wisconsin bishops to begin a canonical trial of Fr Murphy, the Times
article said. But it said that process was halted after Fr Murphy wrote directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, saying
that he had repented and was in poor health, and that the allegations went beyond the Church's own statute of limitations
for such crimes.
When Archbishop Weakland met in 1998 with Cardinal Ratzinger's assistants at the doctrinal congregation official,
he failed to persuade them to allow a trial that could lead to the defrocking of Fr Murphy.
Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the Fr Murphy case was a "tragic" one that "involved
particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what he did".
Fr Lombardi pointed out, however, that the Vatican was only informed of the case more than two decades after the
abuse had been reported to diocesan officials and the police. He noted that civil authorities had dropped their
investigation without filing charges.
The Church's canonical procedures in such cases do not envision "automatic
penalties", but recommend that a judgment be made, not excluding removal of a guilty
priest from the priesthood, Fr Lombardi said.
"In light of the facts that Fr Murphy was elderly and in very poor
health, and that he was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years, the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that the Archbishop of Milwaukee give consideration to addressing
the situation by, for example, restricting Fr Murphy's public ministry and requiring that Fr Murphy accept full
responsibility for the gravity of his acts," Fr Lombardi said.
"Fr Murphy died approximately four months later, without further incident," he added.
The Vatican spokesman underlined a point made frequently by Church officials in recent weeks: that the rules on
confidentiality in the Church's investigation of such allegations have never prohibited the reporting of child
abuse to law enforcement agencies.
The Vatican's doctrinal congregation was given oversight on all cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests in 2001.
Under new Vatican rules established in 2001-2002, as the scope of the sex abuse scandal became clearer, the congregation
was empowered in very grave and clear cases to laicise priest abusers without going through an ecclesiastical trial.
One Vatican official said that today, Fr Murphy would have fallen into that category and would have been laicised.
Since 2001, about 20 per cent of the approximately 3,000 cases processed have resulted in removal of the offender
from the priesthood, a Vatican official said recently. In most other cases, removal from public ministry is the
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said in a front-page
commentary yesterday that the New York Times article was part of a media campaign against the Pope.
It defended Pope Benedict, saying he had operated with "transparency,
firmness and severity in turning a light on various cases of sexual abuse committed by priests and religious", as shown in his recent letter to Irish Catholics.
"But the prevailing tendency in the media is to ignore the facts and
to strain interpretations, with the aim of depicting the Catholic Church as the only institution responsible for
sexual abuse, an image that does not correspond to reality," it said.
This strategy, it said, reflects the "evident and shameful attempt
to strike, at any cost, Pope Benedict and his closest collaborators".
The above article first appeared in the 26th March 2010 issue of The Catholic Herald.
Copyright © The Catholic Herald 2010
Version: 17th June 2010