Top Vatican Official Rebuts New York Times' Attack on Pope
April 2, 2010 - 4:32 PMCardinal William Levada, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, strongly refuted charges first reported in the New York Times that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – declined to punish a priest accused of abusing as many as 200 deaf boys from the 1950's to 1970's.
Levada, who succeeded Ratzinger when the latter was elected Pope in 2005, called the Times’ reporting on the issue, and an accompanying editorial, “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.”
“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,” Levada wrote March 26.
The article, published March 24, says that Ratzinger “declined” to defrock accused pedophile Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy of Wisconsin, who had been accused of molesting as many as 200 deaf boys while running a school for the deaf from 1950 to 1974.
Levada criticized the Times’ focus on the alleged conduct of then-Cardinal Ratzinger and other unnamed Vatican officials for not removing Murphy from the priesthood, even though the article never provides any evidence that Ratzinger refused to take action or tried to cover up Murphy’s conduct. Levada pointed out that when allegations of abuse were raised at the time, not even the local police investigated.
“Only after eight paragraphs of purple prose does Goodstein [the Times’ reporter] reveal that Fr. Murphy, who criminally abused as many as 200 deaf children while working at a school in the Milwaukee Archdiocese from 1950 to 1974, ‘not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to documents and interviews with victims,” states Levada.
“Did she [Laurie Goodstein] forget, or did her editors not read, what she wrote in paragraph nine about Murphy getting ‘a pass from the police and prosecutors’? By her own account it seems clear that criminal authorities had been notified, most probably by the victims and their families,” wrote Levada.
In fact, as the article points out, once Ratzinger’s office was alerted to the accusations against Rev. Murphy, it ordered a canonical trial, which could have resulted in Murphy’s dismissal. Levada says this admission shows that the “point of the [Times’] article” was to “attribute” the failure to defrock Murphy to Pope Benedict.
“Goodstein’s account bounces back and forth as if there were not some 20 plus years intervening between reports in the 1960 and 70’s to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and local police, and Archbishop [of Milwaukee] Weakland’s appeal for help to the Vatican in 1996,” states Levada.
In fact, according to the Times’ report, Fr. Murphy had been accused of molestation and only relocated not on the orders of Ratzinger – who was not at the Vatican in the 1950’s and 1960’s – or anyone else in Rome, but on the orders of William E. Cousins, then Archbishop of Milwaukee.
Levada also pointed out that the trial ordered by Cardinal Ratzinger’s then-deputy Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone was suspended because it was learned that Fr. Murphy was dying, meaning that the trial was unlikely to be completed because of the Vatican’s rigorous due process procedures.
“Only when it learned that Murphy was dying did the Congregation suggest to Weakland that the canonical trial be suspended, since it would involve a lengthy process of taking testimony from a number of deaf victims from prior decades, as well as from the accused priest,” he wrote.
“My interpretation [of the trial’s suspension] would be that the Congregation realized that the complex canonical process would be useless if the priest were dying.”
Both the Times’ article and editorial suggested that the lack of documented action by the Pope suggests that he was lenient on Fr. Murphy, treating the accusations as matters of sin and not law. Cardinal Levada, however, pointed out that, to the contrary, Cardinal Ratzinger, both as chief doctrinal enforcer and as Pope, has taken significant action to strengthen the Church’s processes for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse by priests, highlighting that as the doctrinal chief, Pope Benedict authored the Church’s guidelines for dealing with abuse.
Levada also noted that dealing with charges of sexual abuse was not placed under Ratzinger’s authority until 2001 -- not in 1996 when Fr. Murphy’s case came up --pointing out that it was Ratzinger who requested that then-Pope John Paul II give him that authority.
“These efforts began when the Pope served as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and continued after he was elected Pope,” writes Levada. “It was only in 2001, with the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Motu proprio Sacramentorum Sanctitiatis Tutela (SST), that responsibility for guiding the Catholic Church’s response to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clerics was assigned to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“This papal document was prepared for Pope John Paul II under the guidance of Cardinal Ratzinger,” he said.
Concerning that document, Levada noted that Ratzinger recommended that sexual abuse be made one of the Church’s “most grave crimes.”
“[I]t has designated cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics as gravia delicta: most grave crimes,” he noted.
Levada offered further evidence that, prior to becoming Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger was a leader in combating the problem of child molestation by priests, citing his own personal experience in drafting the American church’s guidelines for investigating and disciplining priests accused of molesting children.
“We found in Cardinal Ratzinger, and in the experts he assigned to meet with us, a sympathetic understanding of the problems we faced as American bishops,” said Levada. “Largely through his guidance we were able to bring our work to a successful completion.”
Cardinal Levada said that Ratzinger’s work helping the American church deal with its sexual abuse problems and in writing the global church’s guidelines for dealing with abuse allegations shows that the Pope has a history of activism, not complacency, when it came to the issue of abusive priests.
“This in itself has shown the seriousness with which today’s Church undertakes its responsibility to assist bishops and religious superiors to prevent these crimes from happening in the future, and to punish them when they happen,” said Levada.
“Here is a legacy of Pope Benedict that greatly facilitates the work of the Congregation which I now have the privilege to lead, to the benefit of the entire Church,” he said.
Levada says that the Times’ omission of the Pope’s history of combating sexual abuse by priests amounts to “rushing to a guilty verdict” based on a “anachronistic conflation.”
“It is just this kind of anachronistic conflation that I think warrants my accusation that the Times, in rushing to a guilty verdict, lacks fairness in its coverage of the Pope.”