A “very rough” computer translation of a memo recounting a key Vatican meeting about a Milwaukee priest who abused deaf children appears to have skewed media attempts to implicate Pope Benedict. Contradicting the New York Times and the Associated Press, the memo shows that the Vatican never ruled out defrocking the cleric.
An expert translation of that document provides evidence that appears to exonerate Vatican officials accused of wrongdoing in the case. Participants at the May 30, 1998 meeting in Rome said that a lack of evidence, such as missing records from the archdiocesan archives, prevented the normal canonical route for laicization of the Milwaukee priest. However, in the memo, they emphasized that unless the accused priest showed genuine penitence, he still risked penalties including removal from the clerical state, a process commonly known as defrocking.
These comments were poorly translated or even excluded from the English-language translation of the meeting minutes published on the New York Times web site, which also reproduced the Italian original. The translation of this document may have affected both the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s treatment of the case and the 2010 media reports about it.
The case concerned Fr. Lawrence Murphy, a Milwaukee priest who abused some 200 deaf children in an archdiocesan school from 1950 to 1974, sometimes even in the confessional. Local authorities did not act on allegations. Although not barred from ministry, the priest was given no more parish assignments.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee revisited the case in 1996 after victims’ advocates sought to have Fr. Murphy defrocked. Fr. Murphy’s appeal protesting the charges extended the case through 1998. The priest was in very poor health when Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland ordered the case “abated” on or before August 19, 1998, two days before Fr. Murphy died.
The New York Times claimed that then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), ordered Wisconsin bishops to halt a canonical trial that could have defrocked Fr. Murphy.
In a March 24 story, the Times cited Archbishop Weakland’s claim that at a final meeting at the Vatican on May 30, 1998, he failed to persuade Archbishop Bertone and other doctrinal officials to grant a canonical trial to defrock Father Murphy. The lede to that story claimed that “top Vatican officials including the future Pope Benedict XVI” did not defrock the priest, an interpretation already strongly challenged by critics.
More reasons to question the New York Times’ claims come in the translation of a memo from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on what the New York Times called “the final meeting on the case.”
That memo recounted the minutes of the 1998 Rome meeting between Archbishop Bertone, Vatican officials, and the American bishops who had requested the meeting. The U.S. bishops were Archbishop Weakland, his auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba and Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin Raphael Fliss.
In its story on the Fr. Murphy case, the New York Times links to an August 15, 1998 letter to Bishop Fliss from Fr. Thomas Brundage, then-judicial vicar of the archdiocese. In a discussion several weeks before, he wrote, “I indicated that I had put the CDF memo through a computer translator.”
“It is a very rough translation and the computer certainly cannot distinguish some of the peculiarities of canon law,” Fr. Brundage wrote. “Nevertheless, it does give us non-Italian speakers a rough idea of what happened.”
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s translation contains many errors of tense and incomplete sentences. Several significant phrases and sentences are left out entirely. Paragraph four of the Milwaukee version says Archbishop Weakland should try to have Fr. Murphy declared impeded for ministry and says three psychologists “would have to examine” the priest and decide if he is a typical pedophile. This sentence closes with a non sequitur, “which therefore. To the”.
The awkward translation continues:“The Secretary, Gianfranco Girotti, stated that the priest must give clear signs of repentance, otherwise he must be applied to a trial..[sic] It is recommended that Fr. Murphy be entrusted it[sic] to a priest who like his spiritual director then would have periodic meetings with him every one or two months."
According to a translation from Lori Pieper, a professional translator who writes at the blog “On Pilgrimage,” the memo’s paragraph four in fact says that Archbishop Weakland compared Fr. Murphy to a “difficult child.” The archbishop undertook to seek a “declaration of repentance” from him, not to have him declared “impeded from ministry.”
While the Milwaukee translation indicates that the priest had not yet been examined psychologically, the memo says that all three psychologists who examined him believed him to be a “typical” pedophile who “considers himself a victim.”
The Pieper translation says that CDF Under-Secretary Fr. Gianfranco Girotti repeated that the priest “will have to give clear signs of penitence” or officials will “have to have recourse to a trial.”
The Milwaukee translation excluded Archbishop Bertone’s proposal that the priest be ordered to a time of spiritual retreat to understand whether his penitence is genuine. If not genuinely penitent, he would risk “more rigorous measures,” including dismissal from the clerical state.
Archbishop Bertone then summarizes the territorial restrictions for the priest’s celebration of the Eucharist and “the admonition to induce him to show remorse.”
Pieper’s expert translation, which was sent to the National Catholic Register, also calls into question the Associated Press’ version of the Murphy case. While the AP said Archbishop Bertone “decided the alleged molestation occurred too long ago,” it did not note the problems in the case such as a lack of records in the archdiocesan archives. The memo notes that the length of time since the crimes occurred had rendered a civil lawsuit impossible and posed “the true problem” for a canonical trial as well.
The archbishop further mentions “the broad right of [self]-defense that exists in the U.S. and the difficulties that would be put forward by the lawyers in this direction,” the memo reports. He also notes the difficulty that hearing impaired have in providing proof “without aggravating matters.”
The AP also claimed Fr. Murphy was “spared a defrocking” because he was “protected by the Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the Pope.” The memo reconfirms that Cardinal Ratzinger was not in attendance in the meeting.
While the AP depicted penitence and restrictions on Fr. Murphy’s ministry as lesser alternative to laicization, the memo says Archbishop Bertone stressed “it is unacceptable for him to be able to go and celebrate the Eucharist in the deaf community in Milwaukee.”
Before the unreliability of the documentation was revealed, the Times and Associated Press stories had been criticized for misrepresenting other facts of the case, misunderstanding the Vatican judicial system, and imputing the actions of subordinates to the Pope himself.
Critics of the Catholic Church have seized on the New York Times and Associated Press Milwaukee reports and tried to link them with abuse allegations surfacing in Europe. Recently, Washington Post syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson claimed the Milwaukee allegation was “the most explosive” facing the Pontiff.
Cardinal William J. Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, criticized the news coverage in a statement last week. “I am not proud of America's newspaper of record, the New York Times,” Cardinal Levada wrote. “Both the article and the editorial are deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness that Americans have every right and expectation to find in their major media reporting.”