What the Times Said, and What Really Happened.

A study in mendacity:

I have reviewed the documents in the case of repulsive priest Murphy of Milwaukee. The story the documents tell is quite different than the story the Times told.

On March 25th , 2010, the New York Times reported the following:

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.

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.

Virtually every word is false and misleading.

Here is what really happened.

1) When the local archbishop sent the request to defrock the priest, the Vatican approved it. The Vatican agreed the priest should be defrocked. The trial was started.

As the trial progressed, it became obvious that there may be trouble pursuing the trial to its conclusion. Several things became known. First, the priest involved became deathly ill, and in fact he died in August of 1998. Second, there was concern that because of his illness, and because of the very long time since the last known abuse incident for this priest (22 years), there may be trouble getting evidence. Third, the Vatican became concerned that the very robust protections afforded defendants in lawsuits in the United States might work against getting a conviction. For example, a law-savvy priest might file a civil suit in the U.S. seeking to stop the church from imposing penalties on him. In short, the Vatican was concerned that if a trial were held and the judges returned a “not guilty” verdict, and if he happened to live rather than die, this priest might be entitled under canon law to return to the priesthood, as if nothing had happened.

That would be a disaster.  

Therefore, the Vatican started suggesting that the priest be punished in ways other than the traditional defrocking trial.

They suggested that he be declared “irregular” which means he could never do anything priests do. He was to be , in effect, de facto defrocked, instead of de jure defrocked.  While he could still call himself a priest, he could not do anyof the things that make a priest a priest. It was like allowing a person to own a car, but making sure they never got their hands on any gas. It doesn’t do them a lot of good to own the car.

At first, the American Bishops involved rejected this idea. However, after a meeting with the Vatican, all concerned agreed that the best course of action was to make him “irregular”. This contradicts the New York Times story, where the ypretend that the bishops in America were not in agreement.

2) In spite of this decision to change course, when the priest died, his defrocking trial was still underway. The canonical judge in his case said that had he been asked to stop the defrocking trial, he would have refused to do so, because of the gravity of the offenses.  Oddly, his bishop wrote to the Vatican saying he had stopped the trial, but he never told the judge in charge to stop it. However, a couple of weeks later the priest was dead.

There was no resistance – none at all – by the Vatican to the idea of punishing or defrocking this particular priest.  The defrocking trial was requested in 1996; was begun in 1997, and the priest died in 1998. It was only after practical considerations (i.e he was dying, etc) became known, that they pressed for other punishments.

3) The Vatican did not become aware of the existence of this priest and his sordid crimes until 1996 – almost 20 years AFTER the priest had been removed for abusing children. In 1974, he was discovered, and the local biship removed him the ministry and sent to live with his mother in Northern Wisconsin.

As far as anyone in Milwaukee knew, the guy had essentially been “removed” from the priesthood. The only step that remained was to formally kick him out. The case was clearly mishandled in 1974. But it was the local bishop who mishandled it, not the Vatican. They were not even made aware of the case until 1996. During those 20 years, the new local bishop did not even try to  defrock him. Only when the deaf community in Milwaukee demanded it, did he start the defrocking process with the Vatican in 1996.

4) The Pope (Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) appears to have never been involved personally in this case. This is not surprising at all, because his office was mostly devoted to entirely other responsibilities, (Making sure that the doctrine of the church was consistent among all dioceses, the world over. ) Ratzinger was never in charge of dealing with  child abusers until 2001 – three years after the priest died. In fact, the documents show that others in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – not the Pope – handled the case. There remains the possibility that he was consulted about the case, or informed of it; but there is no evidence to that effect.

5) There is no real evidence that protecting the church from scandal was their overriding concern. A fair reading of the documents  reveals that their primary concern was that justice be done, and the provisions of canon law be complied with. And, that a trial be held that was fair to all.  In fact, they seem mostly concerned with overcoming any canon law obstacles that may exist.  Over and over again, the Vatican decides in favor of proceeding with the trial, even though there were several canon law impediments. For example, the statute of limitation had expired. The Vatican basically said “Tough luck, the trial goes on”.

It is true that they were concerned with “scandal”. But there are two points to be made here. First, it was Archbishop Weakland  – not the Vatican – that kept saying that failure to prosecute would cause a scandal that might get into the papers. In effect, he was saying that they must prosecute – not that they were trying to NOT prosecute, as the Times article implies. That’s an important point. Everytime the notion of a looming scandal is brought up, it is to press the case for defrocking.

The Times has it ass-backwards.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Vatican put the reputation of the church above all other considerations. There are a couple of sentences in the documents that might be construed that way, if you were reading quickly and if you did not fully understand the entire file. But that impression disappears when you read the whole thing with a fair mind.

Also, there is some confusion because the word “scandal” has a very different and very precise meaning  in the Catholic church. Since church officials see themselves as primarily concerned about people’s eternal souls, everything they do is filtered through that perspective. When a churchman says we need to avoid scandal, in Catholic usage, what he means is we have to avoid anything that might lead to the loss of  souls. At least in some cases, that may be the way they intended to use the term.

6) Remember at this point (1996-8) the Code of Canon Law provided lots of protections for priests. When Ratzinger took over in 2001, this was done away with, and after he got his way, local bishops could say “Bang. You’re an abuser, You are done being a priest. End of story”, which is the way it should be. But that was not the way it was in 1996-8.


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