Thursday, March 25, 2010

What Benedict Knew When: Wisconsin Priest Abuses 200 Deaf Boys; Ratzinger Informed

Today’s big news: a blockbuster exposé by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times, showing the direct involvement of the current pope in shielding an American priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, who abused at least 200 deaf boys from the 1950s up to his death in 1998.  Files obtained by the Times show Cardinal Ratzinger receiving correspondence about this priest from Wisconsin bishops, including Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee, who wrote Cardinal Ratzinger twice in 1996 to inform him about Fr. Murphy.

Following Weakland’s letters, Ratzinger’s second in command Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican secretary of state, told the bishops of Wisconsin to begin a secret canonical trial to consider Fr. Murphy’s defrocking.  Murphy then wrote to Ratzinger asking that the trial be stopped, and stating that he had repented and the time allotted for a trial in the church’s statute of limitations had run out. 

Murphy told Ratzinger, “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood.  I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”  Cardinal Bertone then halted the process and Murphy was not brought to trial. 

Allegations of Murphy’s abuse of boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, emerged by 1955, five years after Murphy was assigned as chaplain to the school.  Fr. David Walsh, a chaplain to the deaf community in Chicago, received allegations from former students of St. John’s in 1955 that Murphy had abused them, and reported these allegations to the archbishop of Milwaukee, Albert Meyer.  Archbishop Meyer reported to Walsh that, having been confronted with the allegations, Murphy denied and then admitted them.

Murphy continued uninterrupted as chaplain at St. John’s up to 1974.  Documents in the files obtained by the Times show three successive archbishops in Wisconsin being informed that Fr. Murphy was sexually abusing children, but never reporting the abuse to criminal or civil authorities.

Instead of being disciplined, Father Murphy was moved by Archbishop William E. Cousins of Milwaukee to northern Wisconsin in 1974, where he spent 24 more years working freely with children in parishes, schools and, according to one pending lawsuit, a juvenile detention center. 

Fr. Murphy died in 1998, still a priest.  As the Times notes, “. . . [T]he effort to dismiss Father Murphy came to a sudden halt after the priest appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.”

Church officials were informed of this priest’s abuse by 1955, and he continued in ministry—with unhindered access to children—up to 1998.

Fr. Murphy was permitted to remain in ministry where he had the possibility to abuse children sexually with no penalties for 33 years.  With the active knowledge of the Vatican.  With the active complicity of the Vatican.

Of the present pope, Benedict XVI.  Who told the Irish bishops, when the abuse cover-up in that nation began to be exposed, “It’s important to establish the truth of what happened.”

If you have the stomach for it, read through the 86 pages of documentation appended to the Times article.  It’s eye-opening, vis-à-vis the ability of the hierarchy to 1) put the image (and assets) of the church ahead of the welfare of children, 2) shield a priest known to be abusing children for over 30 years, and 3) evade laws criminalizing sexual misconduct against children, while representing itself as the guardian of morals.

For valuable commentary on this story, see the statements of Peter Isely and David Clohessy of SNAP at the SNAP website.

For a glimpse of how the public is reacting to the revelation, check out the thread of comments following Huffington Post’s AP summary of the story.

And as you read, don’t forget that information about the record of Fr. Peter Hullerman, the abusive priest reassigned to parish work when Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, is still accumulating.   Credible evidence is now suggesting that Fr. Hullerman was permitted to abuse children for over two decades.  The German government is now weighing the possibility of criminal charges against Hullerman. 

Hullerman was still in parish ministry until two weeks ago, when news of this story broke in the media.

As today’s New York Times editorial entitled “The Pope and the Pedophilia Scandal” states, 

It was hard to see how Vatican officials did not draw the lessons of the grueling scandal in the United States, where more than 700 priests were dismissed over a three-year period. But then we read Laurie Goodstein’s disturbing report in The Times on Thursday about how the pope, while he was still a cardinal, was personally warned about a priest who had molested as many as 200 deaf boys. But church leaders chose to protect the church instead of the children. The report illuminated the kind of behavior the church was willing to excuse to avoid scandal.

The American church’s investigative board of laity cautioned “there must be consequences” for prelates who orchestrated cover-ups. This has not been fulfilled, even though the board criticized management of rogue priests by Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest diocese, and Edward Egan, the former leader of the New York archdiocese. The pope’s expression of “shame and remorse” for the Irish scandal is not to be doubted. But what is most urgently needed was well described by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel — “truth and clarity about everything that took place.”

What is most urgently needed: truth and clarity about everything that took place.  It is hard to imagine the Vatican (or a large number of bishops, for that matter) hearing those words without dread—without dread of having the truth revealed clearly.

How does a Christian church bring itself to this point?  And how do many of its adherents still find it possible to excuse this behavior, to continue ignoring the voices of survivors of such horrific abuse as if those voices do not and should not count when we talk about what it means to be Catholic, and to blame those calling for truth rather than those who have covered up and enabled the sexual abuse of minors?