Just Imagine How Far They’ll Go To Protect The Pope’s Reputation

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Watching Germany as Ireland settles some, I was taken by surprise by this case in Wisconsin:

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.

That’s the lead as reported in the NYTimes, but it hardly captures the true unfolding horror of the details to come. To begin with, the priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy,* was repeatedly reported:

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.

The lawyerly response by the Vatican demonstrates that one of the story’s assertions about the past — “that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal” — remains true to this very moment!

Some details of the Wisconsin atrocities:

- Students were molested in Murphy’s office, car, country house, on trips and in their dorm room beds; they tried for 30 years to get it stopped, even passing out leaflets outside the Milwaukee cathedral

- Some of the boys were molested when they went to the priest for confession; the archbishop was aware that “solicitation in the confessional might be part of the situation”

- A social worker specializing in treating sexual offenders hired by the archbishop reported that Murphy admitted his acts, admitted molesting hundreds of boys, and felt no remorse

- That archbishop, Rembert G. Weakland, himself had to resign “after it became public that he had an affair with a man and used church money to pay him a settlement”

Now I’m just going to flat out tell you that I believe the man who would be pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI, had to know what was going on. Only willful ignorance could miss it. By all accounts, he’s not an ignorant man. But my disgusted gut reaction is fortified and given some credence by the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Walter Robinson.

For seven years, Robinson led The Boston Globe’s investigative unit, which in 2002 and 2003 documented sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese. The coverage won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for  Public Service. Robinson, now a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, was interviewed this week by Marian Wang for ProPublica:

I’m sure you’ve been following the Catholic Church abuse scandal that has been flaring up recently in Germany and elsewhere. Tell me a little about how this compares to what you found in Boston.

I’ve been following it with some interest. I’ve always maintained that the problems that were so obvious and widespread in the Boston Archdiocese were no different than any other diocese in the United States, or really anywhere in the developed world. It isn’t that there was something strange in the water in Boston that made priests abuse children. It’s just that because of our good fortune, and our collective good fortune in getting the courts to order the church to release all the personnel files, we got a much better idea in Boston of how common and widespread the problem was. And this part is important, given how focused the church has been everywhere in keeping this covered up.

The situation in Germany is particularly of interest because for years, the pope—then known as Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger—oversaw the Munich and Freising Archdiocese. News reports vary on how aware Ratzinger was of a particular priest who had repeatedly molested boys, and one of the pope’s deputies has since taken responsibility for the personnel mistakes that led to further abuse. Your thoughts?

I don’t know of any archdiocese where the archbishop or the cardinal archbishop was not kept fully informed and in most cases was not heavily involved in decision-making involving any priest who was accused of abusing minors. In every diocese in the U.S.,  including those headed by cardinals, there was personal knowledge by the cardinal archbishop when news of abuse surfaced. It was true in Boston, it was true in L.A., it was true in Chicago.

The fact we have one archbishop in Munich that claims not to know anything is enough to make one suspicious. So the question is, if there was complicity by the pope himself, how do you get the evidence? And the evidence is in the recollections of priests who were involved who would know, the evidence is in the personnel files, and I’m not sure under German law whether there is any way whether civil authorities could force the release of those files. … One thing is certain. The church went to such great lengths to protect its bishops and archbishops in the U.S., you can imagine how far they’ll go to protect the reputation of the pope.

I was raised Roman Catholic. My split with the church came with my acceptance of my gay identity; the church didn’t want me as I am. Still, I feel a deep sadness for the good Catholic laity forced to come to terms with this ever-deepening tragic truth. Now even the innocent are tainted, while the fish rots from the head.

* I assume Father Murphy had no relation to Judge Yvonne Murphy, the Circuit Court judge in Ireland who headed up the commission that investigated the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. The Murphy Report was released in 2009. Michael Sean Winters, writing in Slate, looks at the pastoral letter released last Saturday on the Irish church crisis.