Recent attacks on pope not justified by evidence

Fri, Apr 2, 2010, 01:00

OPINION:Reports blaming the pope over sex abuse cases are inaccurate, writes VINCENT TWOMEY

LAST WEEKEND, the Anglo-Saxon world was white with rage against Pope Benedict XVI. The cause? Two articles in the New York Timeswhich claimed to prove the pope was part of the cover-up of the crime of sexual abuse against children committed by clerics.

The most inflammatory article dealt with Fr Lawrence Murphy. The subheading read: “Vatican officials, including the future Pope Benedict XVI, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even after warnings from several bishops, church files shows.” The heading in The Irish Timesfollow-up report was: “Pope did not respond to bishop’s alert on abuser.”

The journalist who wrote the New York Timesarticle, Laurie Goldstein, claims she was basing her claims on “church files”. But how reliable is her evidence?

Fr Thomas Brundage presided over the trial against Fr Murphy. On March 29th, he wrote an article in his diocesan newspaper Catholic Anchorseeking to refute her claims. He asserted that he has been “liberally and often inaccurately quoted in the New York Timesand in more than 100 other newspapers and on-line periodicals”. Fr Brundage wrote: “I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the archdiocese of Milwaukee. In an October 31st, 1997, handwritten document, I am quoted as saying ‘odds are that this situation may very well be the most horrendous, number wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people’.”

It should be noted, in passing, that no figure of the number of victims was given.

Fr Brundage continues: “The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them . . . I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by a [source unknown] to me. Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct.”

The day after the claims were made, both the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire and Fr Federico Lombardi, the pope’s press officer, rejected them on the basis of reliable sources. Yet, there has been no correction of the false claims. What are the facts?

In 1974, the archbishop of Milwaukee removed Fr Murphy after accusations were first made to civil authorities, who, tragically, did not file charges. Twenty years later, according to Fr Brundage, “courageous action on behalf of the victims (and often their wives) led the archdiocese . . . to revisit the matter in 1996. It became obvious that strong and swift action should be taken.”

With the consent of his (new) archbishop, Rembrant Weakland, Fr Brundage recalls, he and his colleagues began an investigation. They proceeded with a trial against Fr Murphy, presided over by Fr Brundage. Between 1996 and August 1998, the trial judge interviewed about a dozen victims, “gut-wrenching” was how Fr Brundage described his interviews.

In the summer of 1998, he ordered Fr Murphy to be present at a deposition at the chancery in Milwaukee. Soon after, Fr Brundage received a letter from Fr Murphy’s doctor saying that Fr Murphy was unfit to travel. A week later, Fr Murphy died of natural causes. What of the then cardinal Ratzinger? “I have no reason,” Fr Brundage replies, “to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.” Archbishop Weakland wrote to cardinal Ratzinger on July 17th, 1996, who at the time was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The congregation has responsibility for the crime of solicitation in the confessional. (At the time, all other cases of sexual abuse by clerics were dealt with by another Vatican body, the Apostolic Signatura.)

Archbishop Weakland was looking for guidance. His letter was given to the secretary of the congregation, archbishop Tarcisio Bertone. (It seems that Archbishop Weakland also wrote to the Apostolic Signatura.) On October 15th, 1996, Archbishop Weakland ordered a judicial trial. On December 10th, the archdiocese informed Fr Murphy that an ecclesiastical penal trial had been initiated.

The archdiocesan tribunal case synopsis noted that, in January 1998, Fr Murphy wrote to the Vatican congregation about the peremptory period [in civil law, the statute of limitations] and requesting an exemption from the case being heard. According to the same source the congregation rejected Fr Murphy’s request, stating that there are no set time periods for cases of solicitation. The synopsis concludes by expressing the hope that an official judgment would be made in August 1998. The above account does not mention the meeting in the Vatican between archbishop Bertone, other members of the congregation and the two US bishops involved. According to the record of that meeting, as reported in Avvenire, doubts were raised about carrying out a canonical trial considering the difficulty of reconstructing what happened 35 years ago, especially with regard to crimes committed in the confessional. Also discussed was the fact that a civil trial was no longer possible, given the long period of time since the crimes were committed and the generous law of defence in the US.

According to the account in The Irish Times(March 26th) archbishop Bertone, who was was not a cardinal at the time, instructed Archbishop Weakland to begin secret disciplinary proceedings against Fr Murphy. “But”, the article claims, “Cardinal Bertone backtracked after Fr Murphy wrote to cardinal Ratzinger pleading for mercy because he was old, ill and had repented.”

This is quite simply false. The writer also claims that “Cardinal Bertone asked the diocese to stop the process and instead only use pastoral means . . .” This is misleadingly inaccurate. According to a letter he wrote on September 28th, 1998, archbishop Bertone noted that, with the death of Fr Murphy, the case of accusation against him “is, in effect, closed”. In other words, he understood the trial to be still ongoing at the time of Fr Murphy’s death. The trial judge, Fr Brundage, confirms this. “The fact is that on the day that Fr Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this.”

With regard to the German accusation, I have examined the case as outlined in the New York Timesand found, again, no real evidence only innuendo and tendentious reporting.


Fr Vincent Twomey is a moral theologian and author of Pope Benedict XVI, The Conscience of Our Age (San Francisco, 2007)