Reports blaming Pope for mishandled sex abuse case are inaccurate, Church judge reveals

3 30 2010 Brundage Fr. Thomas Brundage.

Reports in the New York Times and other media about a Wisconsin priest who sexually abused deaf children have been “sloppy and inaccurate,” the then-judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has said. Correcting the public record, he said the claim Pope Benedict XVI was involved in the case is “a huge leap of logic.”

Fr. Thomas Brundage, JLC, former judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, wrote in Anchorage, Alaska’s Catholic Anchor about the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, a principal of St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee.

About 200 former students have said they were molested by Fr. Murphy, sometimes even in the confessional. Outlets such as the Associated Press claim that the priest was “spared a defrocking in the mid-1990s” because he was allegedly “protected by the Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,” who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

According to Fr. Brundage, media reports on the case have been inaccurate because they failed to understand that the ability to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) only in 2001. While cases would “languish” in the Rota, the CDF handled cases “expeditiously, fairly, and with due regard to the rights of all the parties involved.”

“I have no doubt that this was the work of then-Cardinal Ratzinger,” Fr. Brundage insisted.

In his view, Pope Benedict XVI has in fact “done more than any other pope or bishop in history to rid the Catholic Church of the scourge of child sexual abuse and provide for those who have been injured.”

The priest said he felt the need to tell the story of the Murphy trial from the beginning. He especially protested that his comments about the Murphy case have been “liberally and often inaccurately quoted in the New York Times and in more than 100 other newspapers and on-line periodicals.”

“As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing out of a sense of duty to the truth,” he continued. “The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.”

Fr. Brundage explained the case’s back story, which he said has not been reported.

In 1996 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee revisited the allegations against Fr. Murphy because of “courageous advocacy” on behalf of the victims and their wives. While the existence of a scandal at the school during Fr. Murphy’s 1950-1974 tenure had been “common knowledge” the details were “sketchy.”

However, when the case was revisited it became obvious the archdiocese needed to take “strong and swift action” about the decades-old wrongs, Fr. Brundage reported. The then-Archbishop Rembert Weakland consented to an investigation into the child abuse allegations against Fr. Murphy and his alleged solicitation within the confessional.

As judicial vicar, Fr. Brundage conducted “gut-wrenching” interviews with the deaf victims, including one who had become a perpetrator of abuse himself.

“I also met with a community board of deaf Catholics. They insisted that Fr. Murphy should be removed from the priesthood and highly important to them was their request that he be buried not as a priest but as a layperson,” he wrote in the Catholic Anchor. “I indicated that [as] a judge, I could not guarantee the first request and could only make a recommendation to the latter request.”

In the summer of 1998, acting as judicial vicar he ordered Fr. Murphy to be present at a deposition at the Milwaukee chancery. A letter from the clergyman’s doctor said he was in frail health and could not travel far. The priest died of natural causes a week later.

Fr. Brundage also addressed the case’s documentation and recent reports about it in his Catholic Anchor article.

An August 19 letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone stated that the Milwaukee archbishop had instructed Fr. Brundage to “abate the proceedings” against the accused priest.

“Father Murphy, however, died two days later and the fact is that on the day that Father Murphy died, he was still the defendant in a church criminal trial. No one seems to be aware of this,” the priest wrote in the Catholic Anchor.

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Had he been asked to abate the trial, Fr. Brundage said he “most certainly” would have insisted on appeal to the supreme court of the Church or to Pope John Paul II if necessary.

Discussing the role of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Fr. Brundage said he had “no reason to believe that he was involved at all.”

“Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information,” he continued.

Fr. Brundage added that media reports have attributed to him statements from the documents which were not in his handwriting, saying their source was “unknown” to him.

“Discerning truth takes time and it is apparent that the New York Times, the Associated Press and others did not take the time to get the facts correct,” he charged.

Citing his experience as a volunteer prison chaplain in Alaska, Fr. Brundage offered a blistering profile of convicted sexual abusers and the priests who have committed “such grievous actions”:

“They tend to be very smart and manipulative. They tend to be well liked and charming. They tend to have one aim in life — to satisfy their hunger. Most are highly narcissistic and do not see the harm that they have caused. They view the children they have abused not as people but as objects. They rarely show remorse and moreover, sometimes portray themselves as the victims.

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“They are, in short, dangerous people and should never be trusted again.”

From his interviews with victims, he realized that the “disease” of abuse is “virulent and easily transmitted to others.”

“I heard stories of distorted lives, sexualities diminished or expunged. These were the darkest days of my own priesthood, having been ordained less than 10 years at the time.”

He declared abuse to be “a form of emotional and spiritual homicide.”

Fr. Brundage said that Catholic dioceses in the U.S. have taken “extraordinary steps” to ensure the safety of children and the vulnerable. In his present home, the Archdiocese of Anchorage, he reported that almost every public bathroom in parishes has a sign asking if a person has been abused by anyone in the church and a phone number is given to report abuse. Almost all church workers are required to take yearly classes on ensuring a safe environment.

“I am not sure what more the Church can do,” he said.

He concluded his article in the Catholic Anchor by saying Fr. Murphy’s sexual abuse of minors and solicitation in the confessional were “unmitigated and gruesome crimes.”

“On behalf of the church, I am deeply sorry and ashamed for the wrongs that have been done by my brother priests but realize my sorrow is probably of little importance 40 years after the fact. The only thing that we can do at this time is to learn the truth, beg for forgiveness, and do whatever is humanly possible to heal the wounds.

“The rest, I am grateful, is in God’s hands.”

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