The New York Times printed an article on Wednesday in which they alleged that in the 1990s the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), then Cardinal Ratzinger, did not respond to letters of a Wisconsin bishop on the matter of a sexually abusive priest. In an official response to the Times for the article, Fr. Federico Lombardi addressed the specific case and the CDF response.
According to the Times' article, Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy started working at the St John’s School for the Deaf in 1950. During his time there, civil and Church authorities were allegedly aware that he molested boys in the school.
He was moved from the Diocese of Milwaukee to the northern Wisconsin Diocese of Superior in 1974, where he continued working with children in parishes and even a juvenile detention hall.
After nearly two decades had passed and repeated complaints were received from victims about Fr. Murphy’s actions, Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert G. Weakland began to investigate the cases in 1993. As part of the investigations, he hired a social worker to interview Fr. Murphy, during which he admitted to molesting around 200 boys.
The Times reported that, in 1996, after information had come to light that the priest had made solicitations in the confessional, thus violating the Sacrament of Penance, the archbishop referred the case to the Vatican.
Archbishop Weakland sent two letters about the violations to Cardinal Ratzinger, who was prefect of the CDF at the time. After eight months, he received orders from Cardinal Ratzinger's second-in-command, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, instructing the U.S. bishops conference to carry out a canonical trial behind closed doors.
The investigations ended abruptly, they report, when Fr. Murphy sent a letter to the Vatican protesting the trial claiming that he had repented, his health was poor and the statute of limitations had passed.
Archbishop Weakland continued to call for the defrocking of the priest until a final meeting in the Vatican in May, 2008.
The New York Times stated that, “even as the pope himself in a recent letter to Irish Catholics has emphasized the need to cooperate with civil justice in abuse cases, the correspondence seems to indicate that the Vatican’s insistence on secrecy has often impeded such cooperation.”
"At the same time," the report continues, "the officials’ reluctance to defrock a sex abuser shows that on a doctrinal level, the Vatican has tended to view the matter in terms of sin and repentance more than crime and punishment.”
Fr. Federico Lombardi released his full response to the New York Times about the “Murphy Case” to members of the press in the Holy See’s Press Office on Thursday. The Vatican spokesman's response was only cited in part in the article from the New York Times.
He underscored that “Father Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him.”
Fr. Lombardi related that victims reported abuses to the civil authorities in the mid-1970’s, but “according to news reports, that investigation was dropped.”
The CDF was made aware of the matter nearly two decades later, he pointed out, adding that the examination of how to address the question canonically was initiated, since the case involved a violation of the Sacrament of Penance.
Fr. Lombardi emphasized in his reply, “It is important to note that the canonical question presented to the Congregation was unrelated to any potential civil or criminal proceedings against Father Murphy.”
“In such cases, the Code of Canon law does not envision automatic penalties, but recommends that a judgment be made, not excluding even the greatest ecclesiastical penalty of dismissal from the clerical state," he explained.
Responding to the question of punishment, Fr. Lombardi referred to the fact that the abusive priest was "elderly and in very poor health, and that he was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years." This led to the CDF suggestion to Milwaukee's archbishop of "restricting Father Murphy's public ministry and requiring that Father Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts."
Fr. Lombardi notes that the priest died about four months afterward, "without further incident." He was 72 years old.
Concerning the suggestion of a link between the "non-reporting" of child abuse to civil authorities and the application of the Vatican document Crimen sollicitationis, which establishes Church policy against priests who violate the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance by making advances in the confessional, Fr. Lombardi stated that "there is no such relationship."
"Indeed, contrary to some statements that have circulated in the press, neither Crimen nor the Code of Canon Law ever prohibited the reporting of child abuse to law enforcement authorities," he insisted.