Last week, The New York Times released a hit-piece against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the direction of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), for failing to act against a Wisconsin priest, Fr. Larry Murphy, who was accused of molesting an estimate 200 boys over a 20 year period.
Let us consider a few general facts about the source before we consider the case at hand. The New York Times is a liberal paper which promotes liberal positions like abortion and among other socially liberal causes. In fact, in its not too distant past, the Paper has been caught red-handed manufacturing facts and manipulating statistics to push its ubra-liberal agenda. Its anti-Catholic sensibilities have also been well documented, recognized and denounced. Of course, being an extremely liberal publication or having a history of manipulations does not, in itself, mean that their current report on the Pope is necessarily wrong. But it does mean that readers should recognize the source’s well-established bias and critically assess each fact and the weight The Times places on each fact in relation to ALL of the facts and wider context.
Let us now turn to the facts of the case at hand.
The allegation against Fr. Murphy spanned 20 years, from 1955-1974, according to The Times’s article. The Vatican was informed of the problem in 1996, over 40 YEARS after the first allegations were made and over 20 years since the last abuse was reported. During the time of the actual abuse, the local dioceses did not discipline the priest, which was their total prerogative, nor did they inform the Vatican during this time.
When the Vatican did decide to issue a decision on the matter, it looked at a number of issues. Let’s look at a few of them:
1. Every person who is accused of something has a right to a fair trial. One of the ways we protect genuine rights of the accused is to have a statute of limitation – a time period after which no charges can be laid because of the quality or quantity of evidence which may be lacking to form a fair judgement. That is true in our secular courts as it is within the Catholic Church’s Canon Law which also has its own statute of limitation to protect the accused. The Church’s canon law originally had stipulated 10 years which would have been applicable in Murphy’s case. Only recently has the Church dropped the Statute for these sexual abuse cases.
2. It is also standard practice for the Church to forgo these kinds of trials if the accused is elderly and in frail health. In a plea for mercy addressed to Cardinal Ratzinger, Father Murphy said that he had repented his misdeeds, was guilty of no recent misconduct, and was in failing health. In fact Father Murphy died just four months later. Earlier this month Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the chief Vatican prosecutor in sex-abuse cases, explained that in many cases involving elderly or ailing priests, the CDF chooses to forego a full canonical trial. But in the case of Murphy, there was no such request to drop the case, as falsely stated by the Times:
The New York Times made available on its own website the supporting documentation for the story. In those documents, Cardinal Ratzinger himself does not take any of the decisions that allegedly frustrated the trial. Letters are addressed to him; responses come from his deputy. Even leaving that aside, though, the gravamen of the charge — that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office impeded some investigation — is proven utterly false. The documents show that the canonical trial or penal process against Father Murphy was never stopped by anyone. In fact, it was only abandoned days before Father Murphy died. Cardinal Ratzinger never took a decision in the case, according to the documents. His deputy, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, suggested, given that Father Murphy was in failing health and a canonical trial is a complicated matter, that more expeditious means be used to remove him from all ministry. (Source)
Moreover, the Catholic Church is not the only institution which considers the age and health of the accused before deciding whether the accused should stand trial. Our secular courts do it all the time. Even notorious war criminals are given a pass on this front.
3. Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, also pointed out that civil authorities had dropped their investigation without filing charges. This means that the same evidence that was required of the civil court would also be required in a canonical court to prove guilt. This would have represented, in addition to the elderly and frail health issue, yet another impediment in securing a guilty verdict in a canonical trial.
4. Instead of having a messy trial and watching Father Murphy keel over dead in his defendant seat, the Vatican ordered the priest to remove himself from public ministry and devote his remaining days to penance and prayer. This was, in effect, the final result of the Vatican’s inquiry in this case. That’s what we call the “money-point”. If then-Cardinal Ratzinger had permitted this priest to continue in his public ministry, that would have been an entirely different matter. But as it stands, the Church had only two choices regarding Murphy. Remove him from public ministry and let him live out his remaining days to reflect on his heinous crimes, or remove him from public ministry and let a sickly and old man (who died four months later) go through with a canonical trial. Cardinal Ratzinger chose the former option, for the obvious reasons noted above and probably for other very good reasons which are unknown to us. Before the avalanche of child-abuse in society, there was a time when giving public scandal was a real concern to society. The serious consequences of exposing an accused person publicly had obviously negative consequences to the victims too, and had to be weighed against the good that meting out public justice would do. Today, of course, that is no longer as compelling an argument, but it was back then. (Let me remind my readers that abuse by priests is still rare and much less than it is with secular authorities like teachers and other school employees.)
5. Pope Benedict XVI can hardly be accused of being lax on cleaning up the Catholic Church. In fact, that’s part of the very reason why this smear campaign has started against him. The Catholic Church’s critics are not really concerned with “the children”. They’re concerned about Benedict’s “conservative and reactionary doctrine”, and the success he is having in promoting it within the Catholic Church. Benedict’s enemies within the Church and outside of it want to take him down. And half-truths and pretexts, as The Times article shows, will do just fine indeed. As Archbishop Vincent Nichols reminded everyone a few days ago, Benedict is not part of the problem, he is part of the solution: “When he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he led important changes made in church law: the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children, the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18, the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation and the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders. He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words” (Source). And, then there is Cardinal Shoenborn’s testimony:
Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, in defence of the pope, told ORF Austrian television on Sunday that Benedict wanted a full probe when former Vienna Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer was removed in 1995 for alleged sexual abuse of a boy. But other Curia officials persuaded the then Pope John Paul that the media had exaggerated the case and an inquiry would only create more bad publicity. “[Ratzinger] told me, ‘the other side won’,” Schoenborn said. (Source)
Indeed, to the anti-Catholic bigots who smell blood, these little facts are inconsequential and they certainly don’t require reporting on.
The bottom line in the “scandal” reported by The New York Times is, once the complete picture is considered, a complete distortion of the reality.
Did then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation follow the Church’s canon law at the time? Yes.
Did then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation consider the specifics of the accused’s case i.e. his imminent death and the fact that the civil authorities did not prosecute? Yes.
Did then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation prohibit him from exercising public ministry? Yes.
The only thing the future Pope didn’t do is strip him of his priestly faculties, but to do that Murphy would have likely been required to go through a canonical trial…and that’s really the only thing The New York Times and the rest of the anti-Catholic bigots have to complain about…a canonical trial the nature of which they know little about.
The bigots wanted Joseph Ratzinger to personally wheel Father Murphy into the court on a bed, have the trial drag out and watch him die in front of everyone while the comotose priest offered his defense. This is the great day of justice we were all deprived of, according to The New York Times.
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