Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Look at the Accusations Against the Pope Concerning Milwaukee

Sources: Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys -,

The Pope and the Wisconsin sex abuse scandal: I smell a stitch-up – Telegraph Blogs,

The Vatican's DA on sex abuse: 'False and slanderous charge against the pope' | National Catholic Reporter,

CNS STORY: Vatican defends action in case of Wisconsin priest abuser,

Untangling the confusion about the Church,

A Response to Christopher Hitchens' The Great Catholic Coverup (full version with references)

Preliminary Notice:

This article is in no way seeking to claim that any people claiming abuse in this case were lying, or that their suffering was unimportant.  Rather, since the accusation was, in effect, that the Vatican refused to take action against an abuser priest, the purpose of this investigation is whether or not the Vatican did refuse to act.


There seems to be a concerted effort to distort elements of the Sexual Abuse scandal into a personal attack on the Pope which accuses him of being personally responsible for the actions which concealed the abuse of youth.  The current charge against this Pope is the claim that, when he was head of the CDF, he refused to defrock a priest guilty of sexual abuse.

There's a lot of ridiculous rhetoric out there, calling for the impeachment and arrest of the Pope.  This of course is the typical mob behavior of the internet.  There are also less drastic but equally wrong assertions that the current Pope ignored these issues.

The Problems with the Milwaukee charge:

Let's start with this example from the New York Times:

The Wisconsin case involved an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who worked at a renowned school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. But it is only one of thousands of cases forwarded over decades by bishops to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Ratzinger. It is still the office that decides whether accused priests should be given full canonical trials and defrocked.

In 1996, Cardinal Ratzinger failed to respond to two letters about the case from Rembert G. Weakland, Milwaukee’s archbishop at the time. After eight months, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, now the Vatican’s secretary of state, instructed the Wisconsin bishops to begin a secret canonical trial that could lead to Father Murphy’s dismissal.

But Cardinal Bertone halted the process after Father Murphy personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations.

“I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood,” Father Murphy wrote near the end of his life to Cardinal Ratzinger. “I ask your kind assistance in this matter.” The files contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger.

So let's consider some facts here.  The accused worked for the school from 1950-1974, and was accused of events from 1963-1969.  Pope Benedict XVI was made a bishop in 1977, and became head of the CDF in 1981… in other words, he was not even a bishop at the time the priest in question resigned from this school.  It was twelve years after the time of the last allegation that Pope Benedict XVI would be head of the CDF.  The allegation was brought to his desk in 1996… almost thirty years after the time of the last of the events the individual was accused of.  In 1997 we know the defrocking process had begun with permission of the CDF  In his letter (written in January 1998), the priest claimed Weakland was not following the rules in play at this time and said he repented of what he had done.  The priest died in August 1998.

The Church does not allow ex post facto either

At this time, the events were past both the time of the Church AND the state statues of limitations.  So this isn't a case of hiding the priest from criminal charges, but on how to handle the demand to defrock the priest in question.  We also know that in 2002, in response to urging of now Pope Benedict XVI, the Church brought in new rules which made it easier, not harder, to remove priests accused of these things.

This may seem like mere legalisms, but this is important.  Most nations in the world reject the concept of ex post facto laws.  A law can be reformed in response to a weakness, but one cannot apply a law passed after the investigation starts to an event which is being investigated before the new law comes into being.  You can't blame the CDF for not applying laws which came into effect in 2002 over a decision made in 1998

If the CDF Gives Permission to go Forward, How Does it Obstruct?

The interesting thing is, despite the claim that the article makes that they never heard back from the CDF, we do see in the NYT collection of letters this response, dated 5/12/97:

We have very recently received word From the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome that we have permission to prosecute this case in the Church's courts despite the fact that the time limitations have run out. Therefore, the case will proceed to a conclusion and final decision. Please be aware that this type of process is probably the most complicated procedure that we do and that "it will take some time, perhaps a year or more, to complete. Also, please be aware that we are trying. to achieve justice for all the persons involved. We will be in touch with you in the future. Sincerely,

Rev. Thomas T. Brundage Judicial Vicar Archdiocese of Milwaukee

In other words, despite the claims of stonewalling, we do have the diocese admitting the CDF did give permission to prosecute this case of removing the priest in question from the ministry in 1997.  We do have a notice that this case could take a year to resolve once it was begun.  The priest wrote to now Pope Benedict XVI (in January) and died on 8/21/1998.  So less than nine months after this appeal, the priest was dead.

It is false however to assert that because the CDF did not immediately and arbitrarily defrock the priest that nothing was done.  We see that the decision to go to trial was made in December 1997.  In a letter dated 1/6/98 the tribunal began and the priest was summoned

So despite the request from this priest to put an end to this procedure, the investigation went on.  While the NYT alleges that the CDF called for a "pastoral solution" the letter (dated 5/6/1998) indicates nothing of the sort.  It indicates that the canon in question required consideration of whether the defendant could be be brought to repentance before a juridical act took place.  Indeed we see that a letter to the CDF (May 13, 1998) reports that the point was considered and the juridical act was needed.  In a letter from 5/15/1998 saying that the priest in question would report to the tribunal on 6/30/98 to investigate. 

So the implication that now Pope Benedict XVI buried the case is spurious.  The CDF reminded the investigation of what canon law required and the investigators confirmed to the CDF that a juridical act was the only resort they had left.

Now, on 8/19/98 we see that the diocese had decided to abate the juridical process.  We can see the reason for this in a letter on the same day.  The reason for this action was the priest was dying.  This made the whole issue moot, as defrocking means forbidding the priest to practice their ministry… something they can't do when they are dead.

I found this comment from civil law of interest to help explain the abatement:

Today, the word abatement is most often used for the termination of a lawsuit because of the death of a party. Under the common law, a lawsuit abated automatically whenever a party died. This rule was considered a part of the substance of the law involved and was not merely a question of procedure. Whether the cause of action abated depended on whether or not the lawsuit was considered personal to the parties. For example, contract and property cases were thought to involve issues separate from the parties themselves. They were not personal and did not necessarily abate on the death of a party. Personal injury cases were considered personal, however, and did abate at death. These included claims not only for physical assault or negligent injuries inflicted on the body, but also for other injuries to the person—such as libel, slander, and Malicious Prosecution.

In other words, Fr. Murphy was dying and sexual abuse was personal to the people involved.  So defrocking him was a moot point at this time.

Father Murphy died two days after this letter was issued, on 8/21/98.  Contrary to the orders of the diocese that a private funeral be held, the family of the deceased held a public funeral.

With the accused dead, the case was closed on 9/28/1998.  As I said above, defrocking involves a living priest.  If the accused is dead, the case cannot go forward.

So contrary to accusations from the New York Times, there was no refusal or cover-up.  There was an investigation which would have led to the defrocking of Fr. Murphy if he had not died.  The problem was the laws in place at the time.

Since then, the CDF has made it easier to defrock an accused priest.  However one cannot arbitrarily change a law to suit a whim, so the CDF could not just remove the law which required a longer process.

There is no justification to accuse now Pope Benedict XVI.  The investigation began in 1996 and was brought to the attention of the CDF in 1997, who did not block the procedure at all.

The Failure of Dioceses to Report Prevents the CDF from Knowing of the accusations

Non-Catholics may not realize this, but we don't have Vatican spies roaming the world looking for heretics.  Generally speaking, the Church operates under the principle of Subsidiarity:

the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.

—Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Vatican sets the decrees all the local churches are to follow, but it is normally the bishop who carries these things out.  At this time, it was still required for cases of this nature to be referred to the Vatican.  However, Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna who works on the CDF cases investigating these things tells us:

Between 1975 and 1985, I’ve found that no report of cases of pedophilia involving clergy arrived to the attention of our congregation. However, after the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, there was a period of uncertainty about the list of delicta graviora reserved to the competence of this dicastery. Only with the motu proprio of 2001 was the crime of pedophilia returned to our exclusive responsibility.

In other words, if Father Murphy had been forced to resign in 1974 because of gross sexual misconduct, the diocese had a responsibility to pass this on to the CDF under the 1917 canon law, but did not.  Between 1983 and 2001 there was confusion over who had responsibility, which both explains the confusion in this case and why now Pope Benedict XVI pushed for reforms in this matter.  Msgr. Scicluna tells us that the cases since 2001 consist of:

Altogether in these nine years, 2001-2010, we’ve examined accusations that regard roughly 3,000 cases of priests, diocesan and religious, which involve offenses committed in the last fifty years.

So in 2001, the CDF began receiving cases dating back 50 years.  Indeed, the Msgr. says,

In 2003 and 2004, an avalanche of cases arrived on our desks. Many of them came from the United States, and dealt with the past. In recent years, thank God, the phenomenon is greatly reduced. For that reason, we now try to deal with the new cases in real time.

So what we seem to have is this: In America, there were many cases which were kicked under the carpet.  Once they were brought to the attention of the CDF they began to investigate.  Because there were so many cases from the past 50 years suddenly brought forth, it was certainly overwhelming.

Msgr. Scicluna tells us:

Above all from the United States, which, during the years 2003-2004, accounted for around 80 percent of the total number of cases. For 2009, however, the American share dropped to around twenty-five percent of the 223 new cases reported in the entire world. In recent years, between 2007 and 2009, the average number of cases reported to the congregation from around the world is 250. Many countries report only one or two cases. Therefore, while the diversity and the number of countries involved may be growing, the phenomenon itself is fairly limited. It’s important to remember that the total number of diocesan and religious priests in the world is around 400,000. That statistical reality doesn’t correspond to the perception created when these extremely sad cases take up the front pages of newspapers. [Emphasis added]

So of 3,000 cases, 80% of them were from bishops from the 1950s onward failing in their duty to report the cases.  In 2009 with the backlog cleared, we see there are 250+/- cases to investigate annually (it does not mean all cases are true).

So again, where is the fault of now Pope Benedict XVI?  Far from quashing a case, it seems he was seeking to try to make sure that he did justice in an investigation of a case which was at that time thirty years old when jurisdiction was not clear.

I believe that the Pope's view of these abusers can be found in his Pastoral Letter to Ireland, where he says:

7. To priests and religious who have abused children

  You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes Himself present in us and in our actions. Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life.

  I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God's forgiveness and the grace of true amendment.

  By offering prayers and penances for those you have wronged, you should seek to atone personally for your actions. Christ's redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins, and to bring forth good from even the most terrible evil. At the same time, God's justice summons us to give an account of our actions and to conceal nothing. Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy. [Emphasis added]

This is not the language of one who seeks to cover up.  This shows a strong condemnation over the evil these individuals have done, and the reminder that the guilty must atone for their evil, and submit to justice.

The NYT's Fallacy

The New York Times seems to be making an Argument from Silence fallacy.  Since the CDF under Ratzinger did not have an explicit action to immediately defrock the priest, it was assumed that the CDF chose to do nothing.  This does not logically follow.  It also implies indifference over the abuse, when an actual look at the letters show nothing of the sort.


Let's be clear on something.  What Father Murphy did was wrong and evil.  In this instance the issue was not prosecution at the state level (the statue of limitations had expired).  Nor was it the lawsuit (though it brought the case to the attention of the diocese some 30 years after the events the lawsuits concerned).  The issue was a judicial investigation as to whether Fr. Murphy should be defrocked  The Church followed their laws in order to assure that justice was done.  The accused has rights here, just as the defendant does in civil or criminal court.  So the Church cannot just decree by fiat that a priest is defrocked.  Trials do take time.  Unfortunately it took too much time in this case, but this is not the fault of Pope Benedict XVI, and indeed he pushed for a reform of these laws.

If there is blame to be given in the hierarchy it seems it falls on those who knew of the case and refused to report it to the Vatican.  If this case was known as far back as the NYT claims, and if Msgr. Scicluna tells us that betwen 1975 and 1985 the number of cases submitted to the CDF was zero, it demonstrates a failure to report Fr. Murphy so justice could be done.

However, the fault of the individual in America does not become the fault of the Vatican.  It appears that until 1996, the CDF had no knowledge of it, and once it did learn, it sought to permit the juridical acts to occur.

This is quite the opposite of the accusation the NYT makes that the Vatican "declined" to defrock a priest who was an abuser.

No comments:

Post a Comment