Pope ‘failed to act’ on US sex abuse claims
by Anne Barrowclough
The sex abuse scandal enveloping the Catholic Church moved closer to Pope Benedict XVI today with revelations that in the 1990s the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger failed to defrock an American priest who molested hundreds of deaf boys, despite receiving letters from a number of American bishops pleading with him to act.
Internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, warning him and other top Vatican officials that failure to act could embarrass the church, have been unearthed as part of a lawsuit, according to The New York Times.
The case, against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, involves the Reverend Lawrence Murphy, who worked at the St John’s School for the Deaf in St Francis, Wisconsin, from 1950 to 1974, starting as a teacher and rising to director.
He allegedly molested up to 200 pupils, preying on his victims in their dormitories, on class excursions and even at his mother’s country house.
According to The New York Times, in 1996 the case was forwarded to the the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office which decides on canonical trials, which Cardinal Ratzinger led at the time.
The cardinal apparently failed to reply to two letters about Father Murphy from Rembert Weakland, then Archbishop of Milwaukee.
Although Cardinal Ratzinger’s second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, went on to instruct Wisconsin bishops to begin a canonical trial for Father Murphy with the intention of having him defrocked if found guilty, that trial was stopped after the priest wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger begging for leniency on the grounds that he had already repented and was in poor health.
“I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” Father Murphy wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”
The documents emerged as Pope Benedict faces other accusations that, as the Vatican’s doctrinal enforcer and previously as an archbishop in Germany, he did not discipline priests accused of sexual abuse, or alert the relevant civilian authorities.
In a case in his native Germany, the Munich and Freising diocese said recently that, while archbishop there in 1980, Pope Benedict agreed to church housing for a priest suspected of child sex abuse while he received “therapy”.
Yesterday, the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop John Magee of Cloyne over his handling of clerical sex abuse allegations. Bishop Magee, from Newry, Co Down, faced criticism after the Church’s watchdog found that he took minimal action over accusations against two priests. It branded his child protection as dangerous, focusing on the needs of the accused rather than the victims.
The Milwaukee documents, which include letters between bishops and the Vatican, and victims’ affidavits, are to form part of four lawsuits against the Archdiocese.
The New York Times says that the documents reveal that three successive archibshops in Wisconsin failed to report sexual abuse claims against Father Murphy to the police.
One of Father Murphy’s alleged victims, Arthur Budzinski, who was first molested at the age of 12, said he spent more than 30 years, with other former students of the school, trying to raise the alarm about Father Murphy. At one point they distributed leaflets outside Milwaukee cathedral.
Father Murphy was never disciplined by the church. Instead, in 1974 he was quietly moved from the school to northern Wisconsin where he continued to work in schools and, according to one lawsuit, a juvenile detention centre.
In 1993, with scores of complaints about Father Murphy in front of him, Archbishop Weakland asked a social worker who specialised in sexual abuse to evaluate the priest. The social worker came back to say that Father Murphy had admitted abusing about 200 boys but felt no remorse.
The Archbishop appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger and, when his letters received no answer, to a different Vatican office warning them that a failure to act could lead to “true scandal”.
His appeals to the Vatican to defrock Father Murphy came to nothing after the priest wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger.
Father Murphy died in 1998, still a priest.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, said the “decisive factor” in the decision not to punish or defrock Father Murphy had been his “precarious state of health” and the lack of further accusations against him.
Father Lombardi said Father Murphy had abused “particularly vulnerable” children and had violated the law in what was a “tragic case”. However the Vatican had only been made aware of the case in 1996. Canon law did not provide for “automatic punishment” but rather for investigations and punishments on a case-by-case basis.