I suppose, given that the furor has been going on for over a week, I should comment on the scandal of the New York Times.
No, I didn’t miswrite that. The scandal I’m addressing is the insane allegations and factual misrepresentations by the Times concerning Pope Benedict's alleged involvement in a Wisconsin case of priestly sexual misconduct. The scandal I’m addressing is the failure of the Times’ editors to impose any kind of substantive journalistic standards of fair, accurate and unbiased reportage. The scandal I’m addressing is the (sadly successful) attempt by reporter Laurie Goodstein to create a cover-up of a scandal out of whole cloth, to charge protection of an abusive priest where none was offered, and to lay the blame for these notional outrages upon Pope Benedict XVI.
Here are the salient facts of the matter:
After twenty-four years of ministry at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Father Lawrence Murphy was under investigation by the local authorities for sexually assaulting some of the minors in his charge, possibly as many as 200, although Fr. Murphy later only admitted to abusing 19. It should be stressed that there was never any accusation by the district attorney’s office or the police that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was anything less than cooperative, nor was there any allegation by victims that they were pressured or bribed into silence by Church officials.
No cover-up there.
(Sidebar: In commenting on Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi’s statement that “[Church law] never prohibited the reporting of child abuse to the authorities,” Goodstein sarcastically remarks, “He did not address why that had never happened in this case.” However, Goodstein herself reveals just four paragraphs before that sneer that Murphy “got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims ….” She apparently won’t let self-contradiction get in the way of her muckraking.)
As this was 1974, few psychologists and law-enforcement officials were aware that adolescent victims of sexual assault are often reluctant to come forward with their testimony. As a result, the DA dropped the case against Fr. Murphy due to lack of evidence. Nevertheless, Fr. Murphy was removed from the school, after which he moved to his mother’s home in Boulder Junction. Although he would occasionally say a Mass for local functions, or act as an interpreter for the hearing-impaired, he never held another full-time ministry in either the Archdiocese of Milwaukee or the suffragan Diocese of Superior in which he lived for the rest of his days.
So why wasn’t he defrocked? At the time, Church law required that such cases be reviewed by the Roman Rota … a process that could take a very long time. Removing him from active ministry was quicker and easier; it put potential victims out of his reach just as effectively. At least in theory; time would prove otherwise.
This occurred under the administration of Archbishop William E. Cousins. In 1977, +Cousins was replaced by Rembert G. Weakland, OSB.
Archbishop Weakland is one of Goodstein’s primary sources. However, +Weakland’s own history of dealing with abusive priests—or, rather, not dealing with abusive priests—lends very little credibility to Goodstein’s story. By his own admission, +Weakland used to tear up accusations that came before him. In 2002, as he was due to retire, it was revealed that he had used $450,000 in archdiocesan funds to silence a former Marquette student who had accused him of sexual assault. Since then, he has revealed his own struggles with homosexuality.
Victims of Fr. Murphy and their advocates had already begun petitioning the Archdiocese to strip him of his priestly office when Abp. Weakland became the angel of Milwaukee. We know that he knew of Fr. Murphy at least as early as 1980, when he responded to a query about placing Murphy in another ministry by saying it would be “unwise”. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1996 that the Archdiocese began further investigation; testimony by Fr. Thomas Brundage, the judicial vicar at the time, implies that the motivation probably came more from the archdiocesan curia than from the archbishop himself.
In 1996, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It wasn’t until Pope John Paul II issued the motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela in 2001 that the CDF became responsible for handling charges of sexual assault by priests. So ordinarily, the Murphy case wouldn’t have fallen within Cdl. Ratzinger’s purview. However, the initial investigation quickly turned up an allegation that Murphy had used the confessional at least once to inflict himself upon a victim. Since this fell under Canon 1387, which forbids the use of the sacrament of penance to solicit sex, it came within the CDF’s competence.
Jimmy Akin points out that, while cardinal prefects are nominally the heads of their congregations, and that people who write to the congregations would ordinarily address their letters to them, the actual day-to-day operations are generally under the supervision of the secretary. Such was the case of the CDF under +Ratzinger, whose secretary was Archbishop (now Cardinal) Tarcisio Bertone. Thus it was that all the communication to +Weakland from the CDF on the Murphy case came from +Bertone.
With the introduction of +Bertone, we can come to the heart of the Times’ claim: Did the CDF act to protect Murphy without regard to the victims of his lust? And the answer is that the CDF did not act to protect Murphy at all.
The main engine of the accusation comes from a letter +Bertone wrote to the Bishop of Superior, Raphael M. Fliss, on April 6. 1998. Murphy had written to Cdl. Ratzinger, requesting the process be abated, on several grounds:
- “The accusations refer to actions alleged to have taken place over 25 years ago (1963- 69);
- “In 1974 ‘because of accusations of sexual misconduct’ he resigned from St. John’s school and in agreement with the then Archbishop of Milwaukee took up residence in Superior with no further pastoral assignment;
- “He has always followed the instructions given him by both the former and the present Archbishop of Milwaukee and has lived peaceably in Northern Wisconsin for 25 years;
- “He is now 72 years old with delicate health and declares that he is repented of any past sins.”
Abp. Bertone wrote in the penultimate paragraph: “Secondly and taking into consideration what has been expressed by Fr. Murphy in his letter, and before deciding upon a judicial process to establish the canonical responsibilities of the accused priest, this Congregation invites Your Excellency 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 of the 1983 Code holds: “An ordinary is to take care to initiate a judicial or administrative process to impose or declare penalties only after [italics mine] he has ascertained that fraternal correction or rebuke or other means of pastoral solicitude cannot sufficiently repair the scandal, restore justice, reform the offender.” Goodstein et al. have chosen to interpret +Bertone’s citation of this canon as an invitation to summarily drop the proceedings.
However, Fr. Murphy had also claimed relief on the grounds that the proceedings had not started within a month from the accusations as required by the 1962 instruction Crimen sollicitationis. In the paragraph before the putative smoking gun, +Bertone advised Fliss that “the finality of the period of one month fixed by the norms of the ‘Instructio’ [Crimen sollicitationis] was to bring the penitent to comply with the obligation imposed by canon 904 of the 1917 Code (not incidentally adopted formally by the 1983 Code), and not to fix a term for penal action.” In other words, +Bertone advised +Fliss that there was no obstacle in canon law to proceeding with a trial.
Furthermore, in a discussion +Weakland and his auxiliaries had with +Bertone on their ad limina visit later in 1998, the latter pointed out that there were significant difficulties in pursuing a canonical trial, not the least of which was that time degrades memories, making them less reliable … even for victims of assault. Although canonical trials are not adversarial, which means they don’t allow defense counsels to pressure witnesses into undermining their own testimonies, it still wouldn’t follow that the testimonies would be damning enough to secure a conviction.
At the same conversation, however, +Bertone agreed that it was “unacceptable that [Murphy could] celebrate the Eucharist in the … deaf community of Milwaukee; the diocese [needed] therefore to prevent him from celebrating [the] Eucharist, and … also [needed] recourse to some penal remedies.” Thus, the two horns of the dilemma: on the one hand, the legal machinery of the Church could not put Murphy in a kangaroo court (Brian Dennehy in Silverado: “We’re gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first-rate hanging”); on the other hand, they couldn’t let the status quo stand—Murphy had to be removed from the clerical state, one way or another.
And all the time, Murphy’s health was getting worse. Scheduled for a deposition in Milwaukee on June 30, 1998, he expressed uncertainty that he was physically up to the 275-mile journey from Boulder Junction. Working against a time bomb with an invisible dial, +Weakland wrote a letter to +Bertone describing the broad outlines of a plan to bring the matter to a conclusion quickly, using the mechanism of administratively declaring Murphy “impeded” from exercise of Holy Orders under code 1044.2.2, which would be dispensable only by the Pope. He also claimed in the letter that he had instructed Fr. Brundage to abate the canonical process; however, in a recent open letter which was also forwarded to the current primate of the CDF, Cdl. Timothy Levada, Fr. Brundage denied having been so instructed, insisting that he would have appealed such a decision.
In any event, the case was still proceeding when, on August 21, 1998, Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy was called before a higher Court, rendering all temporal legal processes moot.
The documents the Times so punctiliously made available show that the Vatican did not decline to defrock Murphy, despite its lurid headline to the contrary. Rather, so far as there was any block to investigating his actions and pursuing canonical penalties, they show that the obstacle could be found at the chancery office in the See of Milwaukee, most likely behind the desk where Archbishop Emeritus Weakland (and possibly his late predecessor) sat. The documents also show that, despite concerns over public scandal, once the effort to laicize Murphy started, it didn’t stop until his death made it irrelevant. They also show that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the person of +Bertone, was far more cognizant of the problematic nature of the process than Goodstein or any of the Pope’s current detractors.
Above all, the documents fail to show any grounds for criticism of Cdl. Ratzinger in the matter, save possibly for the initial eight-month delay in responding to +Weakland’s request for instructions, for which the explanation could be as simple as the letter being lost in the mail. (Yeah, I know, it sounds like “my dog ate my homework”, but it does happen.) If he deserves censure for the actions of his Munich vicar general in shuffling an abusive priest among parishes because “it happened on his watch”, then he deserves some merit for the CDF’s competent handling of the Murphy case. If, however, he doesn’t deserve praise simply for being the cardinal prefect at the time, on the grounds of no direct involvement, then he doesn’t deserve blame for the incompetence of Msgr. Gruber.
* * *
So how is it that Goodstein and the Times can get away with such a deliberate fabrication?
- For the last forty years, since the adoption of the philosophy of “advocacy journalism”, the entire profession has been reverting back to its origins: acting as mouthpieces for political parties and their constituents. The courts have been reluctant to allow or impose any kind of legal restraint on reportage for fear of impinging on the freedom of the press, so reporters can engage in the most slanderous rhetoric without fear of civil action.
- It’s equally true that certain prelates of the Catholic Church in America—Abp. Weakland among them—helped to set Pope Benedict up for this attack by their moral cowardice in dealing with abusive priests prior to 2002. Bigotry against Catholics and the Catholic Church is the last acceptable prejudice in America. Indeed, so many other prejudices have claimed so much of the public’s attention that when we complain of unfair treatment, we’re quickly dismissed as “playing the anti-Catholic card” even though Catholics have never gotten the support of the social-justice liberals. In 1974, pedophilia was a crime nobody talked about. Prior to the revelations of the “Long Lent”, there was never the public cry for drumhead justice, the waiving or abrogation of statutory time limits, for sexual assault of minors. Even in 2004 there had been only 14 empirical studies of educator sexual misconduct in the US, and no national government-funded studies that had established its prevalence. But after 2002, sexual assault of minors became an exclusively “Catholic problem”, creating a bias in people to believe reports of episcopal misconduct even before they read them. (Sadly, this iron link between Catholic priests and sexual assault detracts attention from other arenas where young people are assaulted by men and women not sworn to celibacy.)
- Having said that, it still remains true that there is a strong element of anti-Catholicism in America, especially among those who consider themselves social and political liberals, although it’s also present among conservatives of an Evangelical background. To the left, Pope Benedict is a special focus of antipathy and anger precisely because he’s eminently orthodox in the expression of his faith, and has been so since he abandoned the camp of Hans Küng and Karl Rahner more than 35 years ago. They consider him dangerous because he’s brilliant, erudite and paints not only an attractive picture of traditional Catholic teaching but also a devastating critique of the culture of relativism. Not only that, his election confirmed that the leftward shift of the episcopate had come to an end. Above all, for many people, even the young, Papa Ratzinger is as compelling a father-figure as was his venerable predecessor. Ergo, delenda est papa.
It’s important to note that, when +Weakland publicly revealed his homosexuality in his autobiography last year, Goodstein wrote a sympathetic piece that, according to Fr. Raymond de Souza, “buried all the most serious allegations against him.” A second critical factor is that Goodstein’s other two sources are lawyers who have a civil suit outstanding against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and that one also has cases pending in the Supreme Court against the Holy See. It’s also not a coincidence that there were American activists distributing the documents in Rome the day the story came out. Did no one think to ask how these documents became available?
(Furthermore, it brings up the question—at least, for those not trained in legal procedure—as to whether the lawyers’ contribution to the article was prejudicial to the outcomes of their legal actions and thus grounds for dismissal or appeal, or whether such an act is relevant in the context of a civil suit. If so, then either they were taking unnecessary risks, and thus failing in their obligation to their clients, or they had pretty much written the outcomes off and were trying to make capital out of what little they had. Either way, their conduct in the matter is reprehensible and ought to be censured by their respective bar associations.)
Let no one mistake me: this is in no way an attempt to defend the indefensible, nor is it wholly an effort to crucify +Weakland in place of the Pope. That there wasn’t an accusation of pressure to remain silent doesn’t mean that there wasn’t at least indirect discouragement of “tattling” among the other teachers and clerics at the school, not to mention the cops who investigated the allegations against Fr. Murphy. Because of the lack of documentation from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee concerning the initial revelation of Murphy’s actions, and despite the effectiveness with which Murphy’s ephebophilic reign of terror was ended, I can’t help wishing that +Cousins had exercised due diligence by investigating the allegations himself and taking the necessary canonical steps. And despite what I’ve said in defense of Pope Benedict, I can’t wholly exculpate him in the matter of the Munich predator priest, despite Msgr. Gruber’s willingness to fall on his sword in order to protect the Successor of Peter.
But neither do I think he deserves to be crucified. During Holy Week, at that.
For while I would agree with Peggy Noonan that the revelations of scandalous behavior is ultimately to the benefit of the Church, a manufactured scandal designed and intended to ruin Pope Benedict’s credibility as a moral teacher isn’t helpful to anyone. More than anyone else in the Church, he has been the most instrumental man in the hierarchy’s effort to clean up their act. Even if you don’t drive him out of the Throne of the Fisherman, how does undermining his moral authority help the victims?
Or, to slightly misquote George Bernard Shaw: “Must Christ be crucified in every generation by men with no imagination?”
 Spelling and punctuation conventions regularized.
 The original précis of the conversation was written in Italian and was translated by a computer program.
 U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, Washington, D.C., 2004, pp. 4, 11.
 “The pope must be destroyed.”