By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The Vatican replied by personal letter to The New York Times about a misleading article it featured on the front page last week that presented then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as being lax in the punishment imposed on a Milwaukee priest accused of abusing deaf children decades ago.
“The tragic case of Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what he did,” wrote Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press office inthe letter to the Times. “By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Father Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him.”
Fr. Lombardi said that according to the facts in the case, some of Father Murphy’s victims reported his abuse to civil authorities during the 1970’s who investigated him at that time; however the investigation was later dropped. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Cardinal Ratzinger was prefect, was not informed of the matter until some twenty years later.
“In the late 1990s, after over two decades had passed since the abuse had been reported to diocesan officials and the police, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was presented for the first time with the question of how to treat the Murphy case canonically,” Fr. Lombardi writes.
“The Congregation was informed of the matter because it involved solicitation in the confessional, which is a violation of the Sacrament of Penance. 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.”
Canon Law has no automatic and specific penalty for this, but recommends that a judgment be made as to what punishment to impose, with dismissal from the clerical state being one of the options.
“In light of the facts that Father Murphy 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, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that the Archbishop of Milwaukee give consideration to addressing the situation by, for example, restricting Father Murphy’s public ministry and requiring that Father Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts. “
Father Murphy died approximately four months after this decision was made.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, also featured an editorial about the misleading report in the Times and gave an even more detailed accounting of the facts in the Murphy case.
Vatican spokespersons have become increasingly bold in their response to a widespread attempt by the world media to link the Pope to a rash of abuse scandals surfacing in Europe, including his native Germany, calling it an “ignoble attempt” to smear Pope Benedict and his top advisers “at any cost”.
Meanwhile, during a Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope alluded to the scandal when he said that faith in God helps lead one “towards the courage of not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”
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