Terry Kohut, a victim of accused molester Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy, has filed suit against Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican. In reporting this story, Scott Bronstein, of CNN’s “Special Investigations Unit”, has chosen to limit his investigation to regurgitating the insane allegations and factual misrepresentations fabricated by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times. He finds assistance in this reiteration from Jeff Anderson, Kohut’s lead attorney and one of Goodstein’s sources, as well as David Gibson, the author of The Rule of Benedict.
After much thinking, I decided not to waste time by reiterating the many flaws and factual twisting necessary to Goodstein’s accusations (really Anderson’s accusations through Goodstein, though she certainly didn’t exercise any resemblance of objectivity). You want to know what they are, read here. Rather, I wish to waste time wondering … what’s the point here?
From 1977 to 1998, the primary responsibility for managing the matter of Father Lawrence C. Murphy’s serial raping of as many as 200 hearing-impaired students while posted at Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf fell upon Archbishop Rembert E. Weakland, who failed to act with any sense of urgency until it was too late. At the time, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect, had only ancillary responsibility as far as guiding the process +Weakland had chosen. Not until John Paul II issued his motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela in 2001 did the CDF take over major responsibility for removing predator priests. (Moreover, this reassignment took place at the urging of Cdl. Ratzinger, who had been decrying “filth” within the Church for some time.)
This begs the question: For what is Pope Benedict being sued?
- Father Murphy had been removed from his post at St. John’s School for the Deaf; not until after his death in 1998 did allegations surface from his conduct in his Boulder Junction exile. It’s not clear that the Church could have done anything more to protect young people once he had been removed; the Church has no police powers.
- Under the laws of the time, neither St. John’s nor the Archdiocese was required to report allegations of sexual abuse. Testimony from the victims themselves show that the police and district attorney refused to act or investigate until near the end of Fr. Murphy’s reign of terror; when they did, the school and the Archdiocese were no less than cooperative. Sadly, the Church didn’t need to orchestrate a cover-up because no one outside the Church gave a damn.
- The CDF was not apprised of the Father Murphy scandal until Abp. Weakland wrote his first letter in July of 1996, twenty-two years after Murphy’s exile to northern Wisconsin. Moreover, the CDF would have not come into the story had not Murphy used the confessional to solicit sex; at any time between 1977 (or at least 1983, when the Code of Canon Law was updated) and 1995 +Weakland could have initiated administrative procedures to have Murphy’s priesthood suspended or impeded, with the same result as pursuing a canonical trial.
- At no time did +Ratzinger, then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone (then secretary, now cardinal prefect of the CDF) or anyone else in the Vatican actively obstruct the process. So far as they counseled alternate means of dealing with the scandal, it was in light of the assessment that the chosen procedure was likely to fail, and that Fr. Murphy was likely to die before it ended … as indeed he did.
- The decision to abate the canonical trial was not Cdl. Ratzinger’s. Rather, it was the decision of Abp. Weakland, who was going to pursue an administrative process under canon 1044.2.2 to have Murphy’s priesthood declared “impeded”. Nothing in the conversation which occurred at the offices of the CDF on May 30, 1998, can be construed as a decision on the part of the dicastery not to pursue charges.
According to Bronstein,
Kohut, whose lawsuit alleges that through a policy of secrecy “the Holy See knowingly allowed, permitted and encouraged child sex abuse by its priests [emphasis mine], including Murphy,” has a question for the pope today:“I would ask him why? Why did you stop that trial? Why did you give pity to Father Murphy? I mean what about me, what about the 200 other boys?”
The language of Kohut’s charge doesn’t permit of a laissez-faire interpretation, where the Vatican simply didn’t take appropriate action in a timely manner. Rather, it forces an interpretation of deliberate malice and institution-wide perversion. This is precisely what Kohut’s lawyer, Jeff Anderson (a major source for both Goodstein and Bronstein), would have to prove. And the documents that have been revealed to the public to date fail to substantiate the case.
However, this is the only charge that has any reasonable (?) chance of actually getting to a trial. Strictly speaking, the appropriateness of various penalties within the Roman Catholic priesthood isn’t within the competence of the Supreme Court, which would have to decline to hear Kohut’s case on First Amendment grounds. Anderson couldn’t even get in the door with the sole argument that the Church failed to impede Murphy’s priesthood fast enough. Therefore he has to frame the charge as not merely failing to prevent crimes against children but in actively promoting them.
But then, if the evidence doesn’t (or won’t) bear the charge out—and it’s a good bet we haven’t seen the full array of paper Anderson intends to trot out should the case get heard—then why pursue the case at all? Isn’t this a case of “where there’s smoke there’s bound to be fire”?
For one thing, such a case virtually guarantees Anderson notoriety on a par with Melvin Belli and O. J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” defense counsels. Even if he fails, he gets noticed for having dared to take on the Catholic Church; his career is made. Furthermore, he can present himself on the anti-Catholic lecture circuit as an expert in Vatican corruption, and become the darling of the anti-Benedict crowd. Given how little academics and the media expect in terms of intellectual honesty and evidential care, he’s not likely to be exposed as a fraud and charlatan in such a way that will impede a long, successful and lucrative career as a Vatican-basher.
Second, various bishops of the Church have done more than any collection of Vatican-bashers to set Benedict up, although only +Weakland can be accused of trying to throw the Pope under the bus. Had the late Abp. William E. Cousins, +Weakland’s predecessor, or +Weakland himself taken earlier and more decisive action to comfort and assist Murphy’s victims, the latter worthy wouldn’t have found himself trying to institute an unwieldy and unsure process for trying Murphy near the end of the accused priest’s life. Moreover, Anderson’s schemes ride the wave of international revelations of episcopal failures to protect young people from predator priests, a mere eight years after the “Long Lent” of scandals rocking the Church in America.
Thus, if SCOTUS determines—as is likely—that the Pope and Vatican are protected from the suit for either religious or diplomatic reasons, Anderson can still claim a propaganda victory. The only way he could lose is if the case actually comes to trial (quod Deus avertat!). Low risk, high rewards.
Ironically, even if the canonical trial had gone through and found Murphy guilty, he would still have been a priest. You can’t undo sacraments; at most, you can find an attempt to perform a sacrament invalid, which doesn’t apply here. The Pope can release a religious from his vows; his bishop or abbot can declare his ability to exercise Holy Orders suspended or impeded; the man himself can abandon his ministry, marry a woman (or a man!), become an atheist or even a Satanist. Yet, to the last breath of his life, he remains “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:6; cf. Ps 110:4). From the moment he was ordained, Lawrence C. Murphy was destined to die a priest of the Holy Roman Church, even if he were no longer in good standing or allowed to perform his priestly functions.
Justice is no longer the issue. Had justice been the issue, it would be His Eminence, Rembert E. Weakland, OSB, facing the dock as the prime obstructer of the victim’s demands. As it is, Anderson, Goodstein and Bronstein have all given him a pass, most likely because he has delivered his master up to them for judgment. And Benedict XVI will have to face further persecution in the media for the sins of his brother bishops.
Why? Because he’s the most brilliant, most shrewd and most foresighted Bishop of Rome in a century and a half full of exceptional popes, including his saintly predecessor. And because he stands for a way of life, thought and worship that runs counter to a civilization in decline. For that, delenda est Benedicto.