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.
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.
Abuse in the Vatican’s Backyard
“Bertone should not have put an end to such a sensitive case without consulting his superior first,” says abuse victim Peter Isely. “Ratzinger must have concealed the cover-up, just as he must have known about the transfer of pedophile priest Peter H. to Bavaria when he was Archbishop of Munich.”
Commenting last week on the “tragic case of Father Murphy,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi merely said that the CDF “was only informed 20 years after the matter.” He also pointed out that there were never any reports to criminal authorities that would have stood in the way of the Vatican’s recommendation to drop the case because of Murphy’s age.
For this reason, the official Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano denounced the media for what it called “the evident and ignoble intent to wound Benedict XVI and his closest advisers at any cost.”
The Murphy case has clearly struck a nerve. Since it became public, there has been speculation, even within the walls of the Vatican, over Bertone’s possible resignation.
Just Outside the Gates of the Vatican
Benedict’s pontificate set out to strengthen the church through dialogue with the Eastern churches, the traditionalists and Catholics in China. But now Benedict XVI must look on as the temple begins to totter, and as a veritable furor develops against the Roman church, and not just north of the Alps.
A widespread apathy toward all things religious has turned into aggression. Since the most recent revelations, a mood of “reckoning” has prevailed in Italy, writes historian Ernesto Galli della Loggia: “No one is forgiving the priests and the church for anything anymore.”
The Vatican is now deeply concerned that the scandal could continue to spread around the world. Why shouldn’t the abuses that occurred in Irish parishes have happened elsewhere, as well?
The next wave of revelations could begin just outside the gates of the Vatican. Even in Italy, where the majority of youth work is in the hands of the church, the code of silence is beginning to crumble. Victims’ groups have been formed in Sicily, Emilia-Romagna and the country’s northern regions. The groups plan to hold their first conference in Verona in September, under the motto: “I too suffered abuse at the hands of priests.” For years, the Curia in Verona covered up the abuse of deaf-mute children at a school in Chievo on the city’s outskirts.
And what happens if there were also abuse cases in the Diocese of Rome? The pope is the nominal Bishop of Rome. Internet sites are already calling upon Catholics to refuse to pay their voluntary church contribution.
A List of Horrors
A recently published book by an anonymous author, “Il peccato nascosto” (“The Hidden Sin”), enumerates the cases of recent years. It is a list of horrors. For instance, from 1989 to 1994, a priest in Bolzano, Don Giorgio Carli, repeatedly raped a girl who was nine when the abuse began. The relevant bishop refused all cooperation with the courts. Only last year, the priest was declared guilty by a higher court, but by that time the statute of limitations had passed. Today, Don Carli works as a pastor in a village in South Tyrol.
In Palermo alone, a group headed by a priest attended to 824 victims of abuse last year. According to an investigation by the newspaper La Repubblica, more than 40 priests have already been sentenced in sex abuse cases — “and this could be only the tip of the iceberg.”
Nevertheless, Italy’s bishops have yet to form an investigative commission. The “problem was never underestimated” in Italy, a spokesman for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) explained in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, insisting that the situation is “under control.”
Whatever that means.
Benedict’s pastoral letter speaks a completely different language. With unprecedented openness, the pope writes: “In her (the Church’s) name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.” Critics in Ireland and Germany would have preferred a mea culpa.
‘Listen to the Voice of God’
In November 2002, Joseph Ratzinger refused to admit that there was a crisis. He described the abuse debate in the United States as “intentional, manipulated, (and characterized by) … a desire to discredit the church.”
Now the pope writes, in his pastoral letter, that he intends “to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland.” The term refers to a field audit of sorts, which can take months.
Even critical Vaticanologists concede that the pope, in his last few years at the CDW, made an about-face from a silent Saul to a zero-tolerance Paul. It would appear that Ratzinger, as head of the CDW, read too many dossiers to harbor any further illusions about the state of his church.
The turning point in Ratzinger’s thinking can be precisely dated to April 2003, when he banished Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a man held in high esteem by Pope John Paul II, to a monastery. Ratzinger had been told that Maciel had allegedly sexually abused minor seminarians.
The pope began Lent this year by saying that it was a time to “return to ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to overcome the temptations of the Evil One and find the truth of our being.”
But for the pope, perhaps the most dangerous demons are the ghosts of his own past, in Munich, Regensburg and Rome.
Benedict wants the crisis to be seen as a test, and as a purification and new beginning. He wants to lead his flock through the desert, presumably until the end of his pontificate.
But after everything that has now come to light — the letters, the accusations, his deputy’s entanglement in the Murphy case — it is unlikely to be a feast of redemption for Pope Benedict this year.
Translated from the German from Christopher Sultan
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