- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

UPDATED:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Two Wisconsin bishops urged the Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — to let them conduct a church trial against a priest accused of molesting some 200 deaf boys, but the Vatican ordered the process halted, church and Vatican documents show.

Despite the grave allegations, Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that the alleged molestation had occurred too long before and the accused priest, the Rev. Lawrence Murphy, instead should repent and be restricted from celebrating Mass outside of his diocese.

The New York Times broke the story Thursday, adding fuel to an already swirling scandal about the way the Vatican in general, and Benedict in particular, has handled reports of priests raping children over the years.

The Vatican said there was no cover-up in the church’s handling of the case and denounced what it says is a campaign to smear the pope.

The official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Thursday there was a “clear and despicable intention” to strike at the pope “at any cost” with recent revelations of how the Vatican handled clerical abuse.

On Thursday, a group of clerical abuse victims provided the documentation to reporters outside the Vatican, where they staged a press conference to denounce Benedict’s handling of the case. During the conference, a policeman asked for identification, and they were subsequently detained, police said.

Four of the American abuse victims said they were questioned by Italian police in Rome after showing photos of the pope during the news conference outside St. Peter’s Square.

Barbara Blaine, one of the victims, said after emerging from a police station near the Vatican that officers told them a judge will decide if they will be charged. She said they were detained because they didn’t have a permit for the outdoor news conference.

Ms. Blaine said police seemed most concerned because they displayed photos of then-Cardinal Ratzinger and his top aide, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. She said police also confiscated posters with such slogans as “Stop the secrecy.”

“The goal of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, was to keep this secret,” said Peter Isely, Milwaukee-based director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, at the press conference.

“This is the most incontrovertible case of pedophilia you could get,” Mr. Isely said, flanked by photos of other clerical abuse victims and a poster of Cardinal Ratzinger. “We need to know why [the pope] did not let us know about [Murphy] and why he didn’t let the police know about him and why he did not condemn him and why he did not take his collar away from him.”

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement noting that the case had reached the Vatican only in 1996, that Murphy died two years later and that there was nothing in the church’s handling of the matter that precluded any civil action from being taken against him.

Murphy worked at the former St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis., from 1950 to 1975. He died in 1998.

His alleged victims were not limited to the school for deaf boys. Donald Marshall, 45, of West Allis, Wis., said he was abused by Murphy when he was a teenager at the Lincoln Hills School, a juvenile detention center in Irma in northern Wisconsin.

“I haven’t stepped in a church for some 20 years. I lost all faith in the church,” he told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday. “These predators are preying on God’s children. How can they even stand up at the pulpit and preach the word of God?”

Church and Vatican documents obtained by two lawyers who have filed lawsuits alleging the Archdiocese of Milwaukee didn’t take sufficient action against Murphy show that as many as 200 deaf students had accused him of molesting them, including in the confessional, while he ran the school.

While the documents — letters between the archdiocese and Rome, notes taken during meetings and summaries of meetings — are remarkable in the repeated desire to keep the case secret, they do suggest an increasingly determined effort by bishops to heed the despair of the deaf community in bringing a canonical trial against Murphy.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, Cardinal Bertone, though, shut the process down after Murphy wrote him a letter saying he had repented, was old and ailing, and the case’s statute of limitations had run its course.

According to the documentation, in July 1996, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland sent a letter seeking advice on how to proceed with Murphy to Cardinal Ratzinger, who led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 until 2005, when he was elected pope.

Archbishop Weakland received no response from Cardinal Ratzinger, and in October 1996 he convened a church tribunal to hear the case.

In March 1997, Archbishop Weakland wrote to the Vatican’s Apostolic Signatura, essentially the Vatican high court, asking its advice because he feared the statute of limitations on Murphy’s alleged crimes might have passed.

Just a few weeks later, Cardinal Bertone — now the Vatican’s secretary of state — told the Wisconsin bishops to begin secret disciplinary proceedings against Murphy according to 1962 norms concerning soliciting sex in the confessional, according to the documents.

But a year later, Cardinal Bertone reversed himself, advising the diocese to stop the process after Murphy wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger saying he had repented and that the statute of limitations on the case had expired. Cardinal Bertone suggested instead that Murphy should be subject to “pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.”

The official then handling the case, Bishop Raphael Fliss, objected, saying in a letter to Cardinal Bertone, “I have come to the conclusion that scandal cannot be sufficiently repaired, nor justice sufficiently restored, without a judicial trial against Fr. Murphy.”

Bishop Fliss and Archbishop Weakland then met with Cardinal Bertone in Rome in May 1988. Archbishop Weakland informed Cardinal Bertone that Murphy had no sense of remorse and didn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he had done, according to a Vatican summary of the meeting.

But Cardinal Bertone insisted that there weren’t “sufficient elements to institute a canonical process” against Murphy because so much time already had passed, according to the summary. Instead, he said Murphy must be forbidden from celebrating Mass publicly outside his home diocese.

Archbishop Weakland, likening Murphy to a “difficult” child, then reminded Cardinal Bertone that three psychologists had determined he was a “typical” pedophile, in that he felt himself a victim.

But Cardinal Bertone suggested Murphy take a spiritual retreat to determine if he is truly sorry, or otherwise face possible defrocking.

“Before the meeting ended, Monsignor Weakland reaffirmed the difficulty he will have to make the deaf community understand the lightness of these provisions,” the summary noted.

The documents contain no response from Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the office.

The documents emerged even as the Vatican deals with an ever-widening church abuse scandal sweeping several European countries. Benedict last week issued an unprecedented letter to Ireland addressing the 16 years of church cover-up scandals there. But he has yet to say anything about his handling of a case in Germany known to have developed when, as cardinal, he oversaw the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.

Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in a statement that the Vatican was not told about the abuse allegations against Murphy until 1996, years after civil authorities had investigated and dropped the case. Father Lombardi also said Murphy’s age, poor health and a lack of more recent allegations were factors in the decision not to defrock him.

He noted “the Code of Canon Law does not envision automatic penalties” and that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested the Milwaukee archbishop consider such things as restricting Murphy’s public ministry and requiring that he “accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts.”

The Times obtained the Murphy documents from Jeff Anderson and Mike Finnegan, attorneys for five men who have sued the Archdiocese of Milwaukee alleging fraud.

After Murphy was removed from the school in 1974, he went to northern Wisconsin, where he spent the rest of his life working in parishes, schools and, according to one lawsuit, a juvenile detention center.

Previously released court documents show Archbishop Weakland oversaw a 1993 evaluation of Murphy that concluded the priest likely assaulted up to 200 students at the school.

Archbishop Weakland resigned in 2002 after admitting the archdiocese secretly paid $450,000 to a man who accused him of sexual abuse.

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