Catholic Sex Scandal: Who’s Really to Blame?


In recent weeks, the Catholic Church has come under fire as more and more cases of sexual abuse emerge. (Kobi Gideon/Flash 90/MCT)

Published: April 1, 2010

All eyes have been on Pope Benedict XVI in the past few weeks as case after case of sexual abuse is unearthed. The Vatican is facing a great deal of pressure from people wondering how exactly it is going to deal with the priests responsible as well as the bishops whose bad leadership contributed to this tragedy. One thing is becoming increasingly clear: this is not a problem with the American Church. This problem is universal and will require a massive response from the Vatican. Until this recent hailstorm of sex abuse stories, Pope Benedict was generally regarded as handling the situation well. He met with victims of abuse and was active in removing the clerical privileges of guilty priests. He seemed to be committed to healing what has been a devastating wound in the Church.

Recently, it was revealed that the bishops in Ireland had been covering up an overwhelming amount of sexual abuse. Bishop John Magee, the bishop most closely involved with the cover-up, asked to resign. As the world turned to the Vatican for a response, Pope Benedict was at first silent. Finally, he released a statement of apology to the victims of abuse in Ireland, admonishing the bishops and reminding them that they have a responsibility to involve civil authorities in cases of sexual abuse. A few days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that Benedict had accepted Bishop Magee’s resignation, which is highly significant as it usually takes months and even years for a pope to consider a bishop’s resignation, and in this case took only a few weeks. This cool response from the pope speaks volumes about his very probable anger.

In the midst of the scandal with Ireland, it was rumored that Pope Benedict himself may have had some involvement in a case of sexual abuse while he was Archbishop of Munich, then known as Joseph Ratzinger. As it turns out, Ratzinger gave his consent for a priest who was considered guilty of sexual abuse to be sent to his diocese in order to receive treatment in Munich. This was in 1980. In 1982, Ratzinger left to work directly for the Vatican. Apparently some time in those two years, a subordinate of Ratzinger allowed the priest to resume his pastoral duties. A few years later, he somehow ended up in a small parish in Garching, a Bavarian town. Last Tuesday, an individual contacted the diocese accusing the priest of abuse. The diocese turned it over to the civil authorities.

Finally, the New York Times reported last Friday that the Vatican had neglected to defrock a Milwaukee priest who was alleged to have molested 200 deaf boys. According to the Times, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee was aware of these cases of abuse which took place in the early 1970s, and chose to quietly move Father Murphy around and avoided informing the authorities, only notifying the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996. The Times article criticizes the Vatican for worrying more about avoiding scandal in the Church than protecting victims of sexual abuse, saying that Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), then head of the CDF, had halted the canonical trial that had commenced against Fr. Murphy because of a personal letter from the elderly and infirmed priest. The Times reports that Fr. Murphy died soon after, still a priest.

It seems that the Times misinforms. Earlier this week, Father Thomas Brundage, the Judicial Vicar of Milwaukee at the time of Fr. Murphy’s case, went public with his side of the story. According to Father Brundage, the case against Fr. Murphy was very thorough and very grave. Starting with the case’s commencement in 1996 until August of 1998, Fr. Brundage claims to have engaged in many troubling interviews and meetings with victims of Fr. Murphy and other relevant parties in order to develop the case. Having compiled sufficient evidence, he ordered Fr. Murphy to be present at a deposition, and later received notice from the priest’s doctor that he was in poor health and could not travel the 276 miles to Milwaukee. Fr. Murphy died two days later, still officially a defendant in a canonical trial against him.

Fr. Brundage asserts that, as far as he is aware, Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in thie case.  In fact, it was only in 2001 that Pope John Paul II determined that cases of abuse would be under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under which the handling of such cases improved dramatically. Fr. Brundage also asserts that the Times attributed quotes to him without ever bothering to contact him.

There are several problems here, the least of which is the efficiency with which the Church officially handles abuse.

First of all, the Church relies on competent bishops to keep it informed and to act appropriately. The cases in Milwaukee, Munich, and Ireland are prime examples of the system falling short on a local level, especially in light of the knowledge that the Milwaukee diocese did not act for over two decades. Church policy also maintains that bishops have a responsibility to involve the civil authorities, which the Irish and Milwaukee bishops certainly did not do, and the Munich diocese only did last week.

Second, though the Milwaukee Archdiocese did not inform the civil authorities, the authorities were aware of Fr. Murphy’s offenses, and, after investigating, dropped the charges against him. By what logic does man who molested 200 boys avoid prison? There is obviously a problem with the law enforcement when priests guilty of this disgusting crime remain free men.

Finally, there is a problem with the journalistic integrity of publications like the Times. These media outlets have unfairly and dishonestly painted Pope Benedict XVI as a villain. The fact is that Pope Benedict has done more than any other Church official in the battle against sexual abuse in the Church, both as a cardinal and as pope, and is innocent of the charges recently brought against him.

I will let Archbishop Timothy Dolan sum up my sentiments, as quoted from his recent blog post on this subject:

“Let me be upfront: I confess a bias in favor of the Church and her Pope. I only wish some others would admit a bias on the other side.”