Abuse in the Church The Demons of Pope Benedict XVI

The case of an American priest who abused deaf children for years has shaken the Vatican. Detailed information about the sexual misconduct of the Rev. Lawrence Murphy went across the desk of Cardinal Ratzinger prior to his papacy. Abuse allegations in Italy are also putting the Catholic Church in an increasingly tough spot.



It is late on a Thursday evening at the Vatican and it is already beginning to look like Easter. St. Peter's Square is brightly lit, and groups attending a world youth forum are in high spirits as they sing and clap to celebrate their pope, clad in immaculate white, who has just spoken about the "Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin," behaving "as if nothing at all had happened."

These are the words of Peter Isely. Standing on a street corner one block away from the spectacle, he is determined to spoil the pope's festival of redemption. Isely has come to Rome all the way from Milwaukee, in the US state of Wisconsin. He is a 49-year-old psychotherapist with a buzz cut and a question that has been on his mind since he was 13: "Why is my church the only institution where pedophiles continue to be employed?"

This is Isely's first visit to Rome. Isely and a handful of abuse victims were already standing on St. Peter's Square in the morning, holding up photos and adding their contribution to the process of drawing His Holiness into the maelstrom of cover-ups and revelations that has confronted the Catholic Church with its most serious crisis in decades. While pots containing olive trees -- for Easter -- were being unloaded on St. Peter's Square, Isely talked about "Father" Lawrence Murphy from Milwaukee: "This priest molested more than 200 boys at my school. Joseph Ratzinger is responsible for the fact that Murphy was never defrocked." Isely says that he doesn't want him to resign. "I just want him to acknowledge his culpability."

He is referring to the current pope. The scandal over child abuse by priests has rocked the Vatican more than the pope's Regensburg speech, which got him into trouble with Muslims, or the affair involving the Society of St. Pius X and the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

Culprits in the Cassock

"Everyone here is highly alarmed," says one official at the Curia, adding: "For Benedict, this is the most difficult challenge of his pontificate. This time it's not about theological or historical interpretation, but about his own outfit."

And about Benedict himself.

Last Wednesday, the New York Times published documents on the Lawrence Murphy case that Isely's victims' rights group had been trying to make public for years. It was only one case among far too many cases. Nevertheless, it is one that casts a light on how the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger, showed more concern for the welfare of culprits in the cassock than for the welfare of abused children.

Between 1950 and 1974, Murphy stalked his pupils and molested them in cars, in dormitories and, in some cases, even in the confessional -- a doubly serious offence under Catholic Church law.

Murphy would tell the boys to confess to sexual activities with their peers. Then he would begin touching them, using his hand to masturbate them and himself. Murphy pressured the boys to give him the names of other young sinners, whose beds he would then visit at night. There was no need to be quiet about it, because the boys were all deaf.

In 1974, Murphy was removed from the school "for health reasons" and transferred to a parish in northern Wisconsin, where he apparently continued to have contact with children and adolescents. But the civil authorities also did nothing, and all investigations against Murphy were dropped.

Prayed and Went to Confession

It wasn't until 20 years later that the church hierarchy became active. In 1993, an expert hired by the church concluded that Murphy had no sense of guilt. The priest told her that he had essentially taken on the sins of the adolescents. He said that if he "played" with the boys once a week, their needs would be satisfied and they wouldn't have sex with each other. "I sensed whether or not they liked it. And if they didn't push me away, they must have liked it." After molesting the boys, Murphy said, he always prayed and went to confession.

In June 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, turned to the then chairman of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Even though it wasn't until 2001 that the church began requiring that all abuse cases in the global church be reported to the CDF, Ratzinger's office was responsible, because the "sollicitatio," or solicitation to commit carnal sin, occurred in the confessional, one of the holiest places in the church. The severity of the case, Weakland wrote, suggested that an internal church trial would be the right approach, a trial that could end in exclusion from the priesthood.

Ratzinger didn't respond.

In December 1996, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee informed Murphy of its intention to investigate the abuse cases. Only after a second attempt did Weakland receive a response from the Vatican, in March 1997, in the form of a letter from Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger's then deputy at the CDF. Bertone wrote that he recommended an internal church trial based on the laws of 1962, which protects the participants by applying the "Secretum Sancti Officii," or secrecy on penalty of excommunication.

'Kind Assistance'

On Jan. 12, 1998, Murphy appealed directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, asking him to stop the proceedings his archdiocese had initiated. The acts of which he was being accused, he wrote, had occurred 25 years earlier: "I am 72 years of age, your Eminence, and am in poor health. I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter."

His wish was fulfilled. In April 1998, Bertone dropped the case against Murphy, in the spirit of forgiveness. In his letter to the Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, he wrote: "The Congregation invites Your Excellency to give careful consideration to what canon 1341 proposes as pastoral measures destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice." The letter ends with Bertone's best wishes for "a blessed Easter."

Murphy died five months later, in August 1998. Bertone, for whom this meant that the matter was closed, wrote to the Archbishop of Milwaukee: "This Dicastery commends Father Murphy to the mercy of God and shares with you the hope that the Church will be spared any undue publicity from this matter."

Today, Tarciso Bertone is the Cardinal Secretary of State, which makes him the second-in-command at the Vatican.


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