Friday, April 02, 2010

The Story Trumps the Facts

Blogging has been nonexistent as I finished up a law review article. I did have a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on the clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and whether it justifies elimination of the statute of limitation in civil cases. I don't think and am generally skeptical about the value of large liability awards against the Church for conduct that took place long ago.

The controversy over the handling of the canonical trial against Father Lawrence Murphy by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then led by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is an effort to respond to the notion that the Church has reformed and the problem is in the past (albeit with ongoing consequences for many who have been victimized.)

Anyssa Johnson of the Journal Sentinel, for example, begins with this lede:

Top Vatican officials - including the future Pope Benedict XVI - did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

That sentence is true, but as other have pointed out, highly misleading. The implication is that American bishops behaved responsibly and were frustrated by the recalcitrance of the Vatican, including the future Pope. Precisely the opposite is closer to the truth.

The original story in the New York Times was worse Its headline stated "Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys" and included a claim that the Vatican's "Cardinal Bertone halted the process. Those statements are literally false.

There is no evidence that then-Cardinal Ratzinger was involved, no evidence that it was the Vatican who "did not defrock" Father Murphy and no evidence, in fact, that the proceeding against him ever stopped. He wasn't defrocked because three Milwaukee archbishops failed to act over a period of over 35 years and, when one belatedly began proceedings because he feared a scandal, Father Murphy, now old and infirm, died before they could be completed.

What appears to have happened is that, in July of 1996, Archbishop Weakland - very belatedly - wrote to then Cardinal Ratzinger and asked for advice on how to proceed with allegations of solicitation in the confessional. He did not receive for a response, but that didn't really hold the things up. He began proceedings against Father Murphy in December of 1996. In February of 1997, a problem arose because the Vicar General and judge in the matter, Thomas Brundage, concluded that the solicitation allegations were barred by the statute of limitations. They needed a waiver and couldn't proceed until they got one.

On March 10, 1997, Archbishop Weakland wrote to Gilbeto Cardinal Augustino asking for a waiver. Cardinal Augustino's office did not have the authority to grant that waiver but the CFD did and, on March 24, it did so.

The matter went forward, not in spite of Cardinal Ratzinger's office, but because of it. It became necessary to employ some procedural maneuvering. Canon law apparently required that the case be brought in the Diocese of Superior because that is where Father Murphy was living. A decision was made to dismiss the case in Milwaukee and then reinstate it in Superior under the auspices of the Bishop there, Raphael Fliss.

In early 1998,Father Murphy then wrote to the then Cardinal Ratzinger asking him to stop the proceeding and allowing him to die as a priest. Cardinal Ratzinger did not respond. We have no evidence that he even read the letter. Most importantly, the Vatican never stopped the proceeding.

What did happen is that another official in the CDF wrote to Archbishop Fliss and suggested that he consider a pastoral response. Fliss ultimately responded, saying that pastoral responses had been exhausted.

This apparently led to a meeting in Rome, not with Cardinal Ratzinger, but with Archbishop Bertone. Based upon a summary of the meeting and what seems to be an extremely rough machine translation of the minutes from English into Italian, the Wisconsin clerics were, again, urged to consider alternatives due to the complexities of a canon trial and the age of the allegations, including precluding or restricting his celebration of the Eucharist and having him declared unfit for ministry (although it is unclear that he was any longer engaged in any such activities). This was apparently contingent on Father Murphy's sincere repentance. One Vatican official said that "the priest must give clear signs of repentance [something that everyone who actually spoke to Murphy say that he never did], otherwise he must be applied to trial."

Ms. Johnson, in an article today, writes that "[t]hough none of the records includes a direct order from the Vatican to halt the trial, they suggest Weakland felt he had no choice." I don't see why she thinks so. In fact, it does not appear that the Wisconsin officials had any obligation to follow the suggestions of the CFD officials and that, in fact, those suggestions conditioned abatement of the trial on Father Murphy's repentance - something that never happened.

So, not surprisingly perhaps, the trial was no abated. In fact - after the meeting - the judge in the trial scheduled Father Murphy's deposition, although it was postponed due to Father Murphy's poor health.

Later, in August, Archbishop Weakland wrote to Archbishop Bertone saying that he had instructed his Vicar General to abate the proceedings. This is curious for at least two reasons. First, it is not clear that Weakland had any authority to abate the proceeding because it was taking place under the auspices of Bishop Fless. Second, there is no evidence that the proceeding was abated. The judge in the case has said that he was never told to stop and believed the matter was still pending two days later when Father Murphy died.

There is a scandal here, but it's a local one, involving three Archbishops of Milwaukee - two of whom are dead and one of whom has retired in disgrace. Archbishop Meyer apparently told Father Murphy to repent and sin no more, leaving him in place. Archbishop Cousins removed Father Murphy and did not reassign him but allowed him to remain a priest and go to live with his mother in Boulder Junction on the condition that he have no contact with deaf persons. Archbishop Weakland was informed, in 1980, that Father Murphy was, in fact, having contact with deaf persons and was engaged in ministry in the Diocese of Superior. He did not act on Father Murphy's disobedience nor does it seem that he informed Superior's Bishop Fless of the reason that Father Murphy had been banished from Milwaukee.

This clearly seems to be a case where the reporting has been cast to fit a particular narrative. But that narrative is, at best, extremely incomplete and misleading. There are a number of potential reasons for this. The preferred narrative is a bigger story. The Church's response to allegations of abuse has often been feckless and sometimes dishonest. The scandal is used to fight battles within the Church. It is also used by our increasingly vocal evangelical atheists to ridicule ideas that they do not share. Finally, America has a long tradition of anti-Catholic bias that has been absorbed and continued, in somewhat different form, by certain elements of the secular left.

Cardinal Bertone certainly showed more concern over the difficulty of a trial and, perhaps, more sympathy for Father Murphy's circumstances than he ought to have shown. But even that, in this whole sorry state of affairs, is not the heart of the scandal.


Display Name said...

Whew, for a second there, I thought you were going to suggest we let the Catholic Church handle suspected crimes on their own and never involve the US legal system.

Dad29 said...

The Superior Bishop's name is "Fliss", not "Fless".

Good summary.

Here are a couple of thoughts as to what's behind the NYT slander:

1) Lefty Bishops do NOT like Ratzinger/Benedict and seek to undermine his authority. In addition, activist-Lefty laity would be perfectly happy to discredit the Chair of Peter so they could 'ordain' women, get rid of that bothersome birth-control teaching, and have homosex 'marriages.' Non-Catholic social rebels are perfectly happy to join that effort.

2) "Spengler" (First Things blog) thinks that this is a conveniently-timed adjunct to the demolition of the US, represented by the Oval Office. It's his thought that DC and Rome are the twin peaks of Western governance, one civil and one religious. He sees it as the Rise of Nihilism.

That's a Conspiracy Theory for the ages, eh?

Anonymous said...

Who believes anything they say.

Dad29 said...

The response to that article is up on my blog.

The practice of Canon Law is not quite the same as the practice in civil law--but in the case at hand, it seems comparable to a presiding judge using one attorney's briefs to draft an order.

HERE, the judge is ordered by his superior to draft a letter. Makes no difference that the judge opposes such a move; he does what he's told.

Anonymous said...

The Roman Catholic Church let Murphy abuse deaf children for TWENTY FIVE YEARS. We are now debating what transpired during the last two years of this pervert's life. The Church failed these boys for decades. That's the real scandal.

Dad29 said...

The Church failed these boys for decades. That's the real scandal.

You are absolutely correct.

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