In a series of articles published in the New York Times and reprinted locally in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, allegations have been made questioning how the Church in Europe – and Pope Benedict XVI specifically – responded to accusations of clergy sexual misconduct with minors in the past.
As in the United States which faced similar charges nine years ago, the accusations – often involving clergy sexual abuse of minors from decades ago – center primarily on Church leaders failing to remove known sexual offenders from active ministry, and an alleged pervasive Church response of silence, secretiveness and cover-up.
As the Executive Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated in a message this Holy Week, “The recent emergence of more reports of sexual abuse by clergy saddens and angers the Church and causes us shame. If there is anywhere that children should be safe, it should be in their homes and in the Church.”
As with the stories that took place a decade ago in the United States, there is an undeniable element of truth in the reporting, although it is often lost in agenda-driven rhetoric. But despite the steamy anti-Catholicism, it is true that the response of some within the Church in Europe in the past was to rely on the therapeutic culture of the times. There was a belief that sexual offenders could be cured through a mix of therapy and a change in location.
As they learned, that this was not true. While no one made such decisions thinking that children would be hurt, predators were returned to ministry and victimized young people again.
In Europe the problem was abetted by the belief that sexual abuse of minors was somehow an American crisis rather than a worldwide tragedy. It was with the support of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and future Pope Benedict XVI, that the U.S. bishops’ determination to address the issue of clergy sexual misconduct with speed and severity was given forceful approval.
At the heart of the New York Times’ series and the media stampede that has followed, is the contention that Cardinal Ratzinger, as archbishop of Munich in 1980, had been complicit in the reappointment of an abusive priest who abused more children in his new assignment.
More seriously, it is charged that as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), Cardinal Ratzinger delayed or prevented the removal of abusive priests, particularly a Wisconsin priest who had abused deaf children in the 1950s and early 1960s. In turn, there has been then a more generic charge, as columnist Maureen Dowd put it, that “the pope is in too deep. He has proved himself anything but infallible” by his handling of clergy sexual abuse.
In the Munich case, a German priest accused of sexually abusing a child was allowed to return to ministry after limited therapy when Pope Benedict was the archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1980. In 1985, three years after Cardinal Ratzinger had taken up his position in Rome, the German priest faced new accusations of abuse and was suspended from the priesthood and convicted in German civil court.
The Vatican has denied that the Holy Father was involved in the reappointment of the abusive German priest and an archdiocesan official who had returned the priest to ministry has taken full responsibility for the “serious error” of that decision. A memo to Archbishop Ratzinger at the time noting the reappointment reinforced that the decision had been made at that level and was not made by the Archbishop. News reports, however, interpreted the memo as a “smoking gun” showing Archbishop Ratzinger was complicit in the actual decision. The Vatican has consistently denied any such involvement on the part of the pope.
Even more disturbing is the case of Father Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee that has received ongoing coverage. In 1974, accusations came to light that Father Murphy abused dozens of children at St. John’s School for the Deaf where he was principal. Father Murphy was placed on leave and he moved to northern Wisconsin in the Diocese of Superior where he lived in a family home with his mother. His ability to practice ministry was withdrawn and he was never reassigned to any ministry from that point until his death in 1998.
The police investigated the charges concerning Father Murphy but no arrest was ever made. But advocacy on the part of the victims led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to revisit the matter in 1996. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee informed the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith that he intended to conduct a trial of Father Murphy for violating the sacrament of Confession in committing sexual abuse. That crime falls under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Father Murphy was notified in September 1996 that a canonical trial would proceed against him in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Throughout 1997, the trial was prepared for and in January, 1998 the tribunal of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was ready to proceed against Father Murphy. Father Murphy, citing bad health, appealed to the Congregation asking that he be spared that local trial, but agreeing to continue out of ministry. Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, suggested pastoral measures – rather than a complicated trial – to ensure that Father Murphy would continue in his present state and never return to ministry. However, the trial proceeded and Father Murphy died on August 21, 1998, before the completion of the trial.
Simply put, the canonical trial was never delayed by Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Ratzinger’s office. Once the trial commenced in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it ended only when Father Murphy died. There had been no interference, no hold-up for 20 years from Rome by Cardinal Ratzinger or the doctrinal congregation – which was not informed of the charges until 1996 – no assignment of Father Murphy to ministry after the accusations came to light, no interference and no cover-up.
Media reports have stated that Cardinal Ratzinger as prefect for the doctrinal congregation was the person at the Vatican responsible for reviewing sexual abuse accusations from 1981 to 2005. That is not true. Only in 2001 was his office given that responsibility and once he had that responsibility, the Vatican proceeded to become directly involved in the issue which, prior to that, had been primarily handled on the local level.
This direct involvement by Cardinal Ratzinger was instrumental for the bishops of the United States to be able to proceed with the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which has become a model for the Church throughout the world in protecting children. Under Cardinal Ratzinger, sexual abuse cases were handled rapidly and fairly unlike in the past where they could languish for years.
As pope, Benedict XVI has been instrumental in addressing the scourge of the abuse of children. He has forcefully spoken on the issue time and time again, made adjustments in canonical procedures to make certain of a swift response in removing offenders, has personally met with victims as he did during his pastoral visit to the United States, and he has addressed entire national conferences of bishops as he most recently did so forcefully with the bishops of Ireland in a pastoral letter dated March 19, 2010.
His words to priests and religious in Ireland who had abused children were firm and final: “You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonor upon your confreres….”
To the bishops of Ireland, he stated: “It cannot be denied that some of your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors in judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has undermined your credibility and effectiveness.”
The Church now provides the most effective, efficient and comprehensive means to address the scourge of child sexual abuse. There are no organizations – nationally or internationally – that have developed such an effective means to address this tragic issue.
As the executive committee of the US bishops stated in Holy Week, “We live out this commitment through the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which calls us to respond with compassion to victims/survivors, to work diligently to screen those working with children and young people in the Church, to provide child abuse awareness and prevention education, to report suspected abuse to civil law enforcement, and to account for our efforts to protect children and youth through an external annual national audit.”
And in doing so, they have the full support – and leadership – of Pope Benedict XVI.
By Robert Lockwood, General Manager of the Pittsburgh Catholic. This article appeared in the April 2, 2010, edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic.