Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys
Published: March 24, 2010
Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.
Abuse Scandal's Ripples Spread Across Europe (March 25, 2010)
Jeffrey Phelps for The New York Times
The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.
The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican's chief doctrinal enforcer.
The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.
In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee's archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican's secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy's dismissal.
But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church's own statute of limitations.
"I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood," Father Murphy wrote near the end of his life to Cardinal Ratzinger. "I ask your kind assistance in this matter." The files contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.
The New York Times obtained the documents, which the church fought to keep secret, from Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, the lawyers for five men who have brought four lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The documents include letters between bishops and the Vatican, victims' affidavits, the handwritten notes of an expert on sexual disorders who interviewed Father Murphy and minutes of a final meeting on the case at the Vatican.
Father Murphy not only was never tried or disciplined by the church's own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims. Three successive archbishops in Wisconsin were told that Father Murphy was sexually abusing children, the documents show, but never reported it to criminal or civil authorities.
Instead of being disciplined, Father Murphy was quietly moved by Archbishop William E. Cousins of Milwaukee to the Diocese of Superior in northern Wisconsin in 1974, where he spent his last 24 years working freely with children in parishes, schools and, as one lawsuit charges, a juvenile detention center. He died in 1998, still a priest.
Even as the pope himself in a recent letter to Irish Catholics has emphasized the need to cooperate with civil justice in abuse cases, the correspondence seems to indicate that the Vatican's insistence on secrecy has often impeded such cooperation. At the same time, the officials' reluctance to defrock a sex abuser shows that on a doctrinal level, the Vatican has tended to view the matter in terms of sin and repentance more than crime and punishment.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was shown the documents and was asked to respond to questions about the case. He provided a statement saying that Father Murphy had certainly violated "particularly vulnerable" children and the law, and that it was a "tragic case." But he pointed out that the Vatican was not forwarded the case until 1996, years after civil authorities had investigated the case and dropped it.
Father Lombardi emphasized that neither the Code of Canon Law nor the Vatican norms issued in 1962, which instruct bishops to conduct canonical investigations and trials in secret, prohibited church officials from reporting child abuse to civil authorities. He did not address why that had never happened in this case.