"Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys" read the headline on the front page of the New York Times on March 25, 2010—the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord. The text of the story was no less alarming, seeming to implicate "Top Vatican officials—including the future Pope Benedict XVI" in a decades-long cover-up of one of the most heinous cases of clerical sexual abuse revealed in the United States.
Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy, who died in 1998, is alleged to have "molested as many as 200 deaf boys," according to the article by Laurie Goodstein. The abuse, which no one denies, took place at St. John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin, where Father Murphy was stationed between 1950 and 1974.
Beyond those details, however, the Father Murphy case—and especially Laurie Goodstein's New York Times article—is a classic example of the conflation of fact, fiction, and anti-Catholic bias. Let's examine each.
There have been a number of good articles examining Laurie Goodstein's reporting; for this post, I am especially indebted to three: "A Response to the New York Times" by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza; "The Pope and the Murphy case: what the New York Times story didn't tell you" by Phil Lawler; and "Shame on the NYTimes" by Michael Sean Winters. The first appeared in on a political website (National Review Online); the second, on a generally conservative Catholic website (CatholicCulture.org); the third, on a left-wing Catholic website (AmericaMagazine.org).
As Lawler notes, "The allegations of abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy began in 1955 and continued in 1974." Unfortunately, the allegations were not taken seriously by officials at the school or in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, to which Father Murphy belonged, until 1974. They were never, as Laurie Goodstein admits in her article (more on that in the "Anti-Catholic Bias" section, below), taken seriously by civil authorities.
In 1974, Milwaukee Archbishop William Cousins, Fr. de Souza reports, granted Father Murphy "an official 'temporary sick leave' from St. John’s School for the Deaf," but he did not pursue canonical penalties against the priest. Father Murphy moved to the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, and lived with his mother. "He has no official assignment from this point until his death in 1998," nor have any allegations of abuse in those last 24 years of his life emerged.
So where does Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, come in? In 1996, years after both the civil and canonical statutes of limitations on sexual abuse had run out, Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland (one of Laurie Goodstein's two sources for her article) "writes to Cardinal Ratzinger, claiming that he has only just discovered that Father Murphy’s sexual abuse involved the sacrament of confession" (in Father de Souza's words). Father Murphy was alleged to have granted some of his victims absolution for sexual sins in which he had taken part—such a serious violation of the sacrament and of the duties of the priesthood that there is no statute of limitations on the offense.
Archbishop Weakland, who had known about the Father Murphy case for over 20 years, had authority over it from 1977 on, and declined to do anything about it until 1996, began a canonical trial against Father Murphy that fall. On March 24, 1997, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Cardinal Ratzinger's right-hand man at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Archbishop Weakland, agreeing with the need for a canonical trial.
The trial continued for over a year and a half, even though, in May 1998, Archbishop Bertone, in a meeting with Archbishop Weakland in Rome, discussed other options "that would more quickly remove Father Murphy from ministry," since Father Murphy was close to death. Archbishop Weakland declined to pursue such options until August 19, 1998, two days before Father Murphy died—at which point it was too late.
Because Father Murphy had not been defrocked, his family had him buried in his priestly vestments in a public funeral (despite Archbishop Weakland's request that the funeral be private).
By now, it should be clear that the headline and lead paragraph of Goodstein's article severely distorts the reality of what happened. While Archbishop Weakland wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996, there is no indication that the future pope read the correspondence or directed his assistant's response to it. Even if he had, the response was the appropriate one—Archbishop Bertone recommended proceeding with a canonical trial to attempt to defrock Father Murphy.
In other words, Cardinal Ratzinger did not "decline to defrock" Father Murphy. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Cardinal Ratzinger was the head, supported the attempt to defrock Father Murphy and even, as Father Murphy approached death, suggested that the trial be suspended and other measures taken to ensure that he be defrocked before he died.
Moreover, Goodstein's article gives the impression that the events of 1996-98 were simply a continuation of the allegations and actions of 1974. That's not true. While the events of 1996 involved some of the same incidents, the crime in question was a different one: the pardoning of sins in which Father Murphy himself had taken place. Unlike sexual abuse, which has a statute of limitations in both civil and canonical law (indeed, the statute of limitations on sexual abuse in civil law is almost universally shorter than the statute of limitations in canonical law), there is no statute of limitations on the grave corruption of the priesthood and Sacrament of Confession. That's why a trial could begin in 1996, and why the CDF supported the trial.
Finally, Goodstein suggests that the Church failed in 1996 to report Father Murphy's actions to the civil authorities. But again, in 1996, there was nothing to report. The civil statute of limitations on sexual abuse had long ago expired; the crime under consideration at that time—abuse of the Sacrament of Confession—is only a canonical crime, not a civil one.
The Anti-Catholic Bias
And that is where the anti-Catholic bias of the article becomes evident. Goodstein has been writing about matters Catholic for some time now; indeed, as Father de Souza points out, she
has a recent history with Archbishop Weakland. Last year, upon the release of the disgraced archbishop’s autobiography, she wrote an unusually sympathetic story that buried all the most serious allegations against him (New York Times, May 14, 2009)
Yet Goodstein relied on Archbishop Weakland's self-serving account of the Father Murphy case to try to build a nonexistent case against Pope Benedict XVI. In the process, she deliberately conflates the allegations of 1974 with those of 1996, though any competent reporter covering the Catholic Church would understand the difference between the civil and canonical crimes of sexual abuse and the canonical crime of absolving a partner in sin.
Goodstein goes out of her way to bury the fact that the civil authorities declined to do anything in 1974, writing a convoluted paragraph that gives the mistaken impression that they were acting at the behest of the Church:
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.
Burying the role that the civil authorities played in the middle of the ninth paragraph of the story, sandwiched in between two sentences about Church officials' failure to act, cannot be chalked up to bad reporting. It is, as any good writer or editor would know, a deliberate act.
Another indication of Goodstein's bias can be seen in her reporting on the history of canonical actions against priests. Goodstein writes:
The Vatican’s inaction is not unusual. Only 20 percent of the 3,000 accused priests whose cases went to the church’s doctrinal office between 2001 and 2010 were given full church trials, and only some of those were defrocked, according to a recent interview in an Italian newspaper with Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, the chief internal prosecutor at that office. An additional 10 percent were defrocked immediately. Ten percent left voluntarily. But a majority—60 percent—faced other “administrative and disciplinary provisions,” Monsignor Scicluna said, like being prohibited from celebrating Mass.
What Goodstein leaves out is that Msgr. Scicluna explained (as the English Catholic Herald reported) that "Most cases of priestly sex abuse against minors have been handled without a Church trial because of the advanced age of the accused." Moreover, while "only some of those" (Goodstein's words) given full canonical trials were defrocked, "the conviction rate is about 85 per cent overall" (according to the Catholic Herald).
One final indication of Goodstein's bias: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not have jurisdiction over sexual-abuse cases until 2001, six years after the canonical trial of Father Murphy began. Revealing that fact destroys the tidy narrative Goodstein has built up, because it makes it clear to even the cursory reader that the Father Murphy case, in 1996, could not have been the same as the Father Murphy case in 1974.
Goodstein's decision to leave that fact out cannot be attributed to ignorance: It was discussed in the interview with Msgr. Scicluna that she cites. That is why the 3,000 cases that she mentions have all been referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2001—it was only then that the CDF received jurisdiction.