Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Pope and the Murphy case: what the New York Times story didn't tell you

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 25, 2010

Today's front-page story in the New York Times suggests that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the direction of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, failed to act against a Wisconsin priest who was accused of molesting scores of boys at a school for the deaf.

Is the story damaging? Yes. Should the Vatican have acted faster? Yes. Should the accused priest have been laicized? In all probability, Yes again.

Nevertheless, before assigning all blame to the Vatican, consider these factors:

1. The allegations of abuse by Father Lawrence Murphy began in 1955 and continued in 1974, according to the Times account. The Vatican was first notified in 1996: 40 years after Church officials in Wisconsin were first made aware of the problem. Local Church leaders could have taken action in the 1950s. They didn't.

2. The Vatican, following the standard procedures required by canon law, kept its own inquiries confidential. But the CDF never barred other investigations. Local Church officials could have given police all the information they had about the allegations against Murphy. Indeed they could have informed police 40 years earlier. They didn't.

3. Milwaukee's Archbishop Cousins could have suspended Father Murphy from priestly ministry in 1974, when he was evidently convinced that the priest was guilty of gross misconduct. He didn't. Instead he transferred the predator priest to a new diocese, allowing him to continue pastoral work giving him access to other innocent young people. And as if that weren't enough, later Archbishop Weakland made sure that there was no "paper trail." There was certainly a cover-up in this case. It was in Milwaukee, not in Rome.

4. Having called the Vatican's attention to Murphy's case, Archbishop Weakland apparently wanted an immediate response, and was unhappy that the CDF took 8 months to respond. But again, the Milwaukee archdiocese had waited decades to take this action. Because the Milwaukee archdiocese had waited so long to take action, the canonical statute of limitations had become an important factor in the Vatican's decision to advise against an ecclesiastical trial.

5. In a plea for mercy addressed to Cardinal Ratzinger, Father Murphy said that he had repented his misdeeds, was guilty of no recent misconduct, and was in failing health. Earlier this month Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the chief Vatican prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, explained that in many cases involving elderly or ailing priests, the CDF chooses to forego a full canonical trial, instead ordering the priest to remove himself from public ministry and devote his remaining days to penance and prayer. This was, in effect, the final result of the Vatican's inquiry in this case; Father Murphy died just months later.

6. The correspondence makes it clear that Archbishop Weakland took action not because he wanted to protect the public from an abusive priest, but because he wanted to avoid the huge public outcry that he predicted would emerge if Murphy was not disciplined. In 1996, when the archbishop made that prediction, the public outcry would--and should--have been focused on the Milwaukee archdiocese, if it had materialized. Now, 14 years later, a much more intense public outcry is focused on the Vatican. The anger is justifiable, but it is misdirected.

This is a story about the abject failure of the Milwaukee archdiocese to discipline a dangerous priest, and the tardy effort by Archbishop Weakland--who would soon become the subject of a major scandal himself--to shift responsibility to Rome. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Mar. 28, 2010 11:37 PM ET USA

    The fact that the Vatican had to release a Universal Cathechism as well as the fact that the Vatican had to become the authority in regards to sex-abuse in not an indictment on the Vatican, but an indictment on the fact the too many acting in authority both in education and discipline did little or nothing in regards to abuses in both areas. What's next? Will the Vatican have to take responsibility to excommunicate publicly scandalous "Catholics" in office?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Mar. 28, 2010 11:24 PM ET USA

    Right after the health care fight, more 50+ year old accusations are 'coming to light'. Are there new accusations of recent misdeeds? One would think so reading headlines like 'Pope under fire in fresh scandal'. Only the scandal is not fresh, it is 15 years old. I am not condoning those priests actions, just pointing out the double standards in our media. Could such an inaccurate headline be printed about Barack Obama? Not without an uproar of, "That is not true!!" Why is it ok for the Pope?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Mar. 28, 2010 11:12 PM ET USA

    Here is something else they did not tell you: "I came to the stark realization that the problems were really endemic to the clerical culture, and all the problems we are having in the U.S. led back to Rome," Anderson said. "And I realized nothing was going to fundamentally change until they did." A lawyer has decided the case before seeing the facts. He is an 'ex-atheist'. Sure. The timing is weird, also.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 28, 2010 1:28 PM ET USA

    "By their fruits you shall know them." Many of these prelates have been depriving the faithful of traditional rites and doctrine for years. Popes JP II and Benedict might not bear direct responsibility, but the media can't be faulted for pursuing such entrenched negligence. Any CEO would be called to task for such pervasive corruption. It's one thing to suffer a liberal as bishop; it's quite another to suffer a monster. Pope Benedict is in an unenviable position and needs lots of prayers.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 27, 2010 12:23 PM ET USA

    From Flannery O'Connor: "To get back to all the sorry Catholics. Sin is sin whether it is committed by the Pope, bishops, priests or lay people. The Pope goes to confession like the rest of us... The Church is mighty realistic about human nature." from Vows of Silence. Leave it to O'Connor to shock us with the naked truth. An irreligious public servant once stated: Do the right thing for the right reason. If only our spiritual leaders could have remembered and practiced this simple motto.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 27, 2010 11:46 AM ET USA

    A famous legend comes to mind about the latest atack on Jesus' Church. The Emperor Napolean once asked a notable cardinal of the Catholic Church how do you 'kill the Catholic Church'; where the cardinal answered, I don't know, we have been trying to kill it for 2,000 years.' Many other despots have been trying throughout history. Jesus said, 'it shall stand until the end of the age.' That is one promise that will be kept by God.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 27, 2010 10:49 AM ET USA

    John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter actually corrected CNN this morning by telling them that the Murphy case did not land on Ratzinger's desk until 2001 - well past the date mentioned. By then the whole thing was moot.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 27, 2010 6:53 AM ET USA

    "Any stick with which to beat the dog will do" in the NEW YORK TIMES hatred for the Church, and this is just the latest variant of that effort and typically despicable of the paper's animosity to all things Catholic because of the Church's teaching on homosexuality.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 27, 2010 1:25 AM ET USA

    One of the first things to cross my mind was JARay's observations about the apparent attempt to derail or at least muddy the Holy Father's planned visit to Great Britain and his beatification of Cardinal Newman in September 2010. It is clear that the secular media is relishing this.

  • Posted by: geardoid - Mar. 26, 2010 8:50 PM ET USA

    Tell me, was it even appropriate for Weakland to write to the CDF for 'guidance' on sanctions against an immoral priest (as opposed to one who was teaching error)? A newspaper in Canada (the Ottawa Citizen) picked up from this the notion that CDF is responsible for "doctrine and morals" in the Church, rather than doctrine on theology and morals. The difference is huge.

  • Posted by: Lisa Nicholas, PhD - Mar. 26, 2010 2:08 PM ET USA

    "The anger is justifiable, but it is misdirected." The whole (now lengthy) history of the media reports on the priestly sex abuse scandals has been one of misdirection (a.k.a. sleight-of-hand, a technique well-known to illusionists). As a result, the public finds itself foaming at the mouth to attack those who are trying to deal with the problem rather than being outraged at the actual culprits -- the priestly sexual predators and their accessories-after-the-fact in chancery offices.

  • Posted by: JARay - Mar. 25, 2010 9:32 PM ET USA

    As a result of this hysteria, driven by the media, I fear for the Pope when he travels to Britain and canonises John Henry Newman. There are those who will do anything (and I do mean ANYTHING) to wreck his visit. We must pray hard for our Holy Father.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 25, 2010 5:27 PM ET USA

    Weakland is a bust.

  • Posted by: Hal - Mar. 25, 2010 4:05 PM ET USA

    I agree with Cornelius. This is an orchestrated campaign at the highest levels, probably Soros behind it and his gaggle.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 25, 2010 3:25 PM ET USA

    The far reach of cases like this make it clearer and clearer that there's an effort - coordinated or not - to attempt to find something, anything, to lay at the Pope's door for the purpose of detracting from his moral witness to the world at large or at least derail his internal plan for the Church.

  • Posted by: wdcny - Mar. 25, 2010 3:13 PM ET USA

    The Times long, long ago should have altered its motto to "All the News...That Fits."