The devastation of sin in the Church

One year ago to the day, Archbishop Jerome Listecki delivered a homily about the nature of sin at his installation Mass as the new shepherd of Milwaukee who inherited the wreckage of its abuse scandal. Today, he went before the people, the press and the world to declare the natural progression of its consequences…..bankruptcy.

This was probably inevitable. But still startling.

…Listecki said the action was brought on “because priest-perpetrators sexually abused minors, going against everything the Church and the priesthood represents.”

As a result, he said, “there are financial claims pending against the archdiocese that exceed our means.”

This recalls for me a couple of things, right offhand…

When I hosted ‘The Right Questions’ radio show several years ago, my producer and I were so taken by something that was happening in an archdiocese in the far reaches of Canada, we invited the newly appointed archbishop on the show to talk about his remarkable approach. He had been appointed to head this archdiocese that was devastated by an abuse scandal, the wretched consequences of one bad priest. The archbishop took his post and announced a year of reparation for the entire archdiocese, ‘the year of the Cross’, and a program of prayer and pilgrimage, austerity and atonement, to end on the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. He was very humble, addressing the full weight of the crime and total need for just reparation. We revisited that conversation a year later, and heard remarkable accounts of rebuilding, restoration and conversion that went on throughout that year. They are stronger now, as a result.

The other thing….or another thing, among others that are occurring to me for another post on another day….is the poignant insight of a French scholar in an interview with Le Figaro.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that crimes committed by a priest are ultimately more serious than those committed by a phys-ed teacher, for example. And that is what justifies the media anger/outcry we have witnessed. The paradox is this: if we particularly attack Church members when they are corrupt it’s because we have a sense of the special purity of their mission.

From this point of view, the standing of the Church is even more affected where we believe in the holiness of the Church, because it is then that it becomes serious beyond comparison. Thus Benedict XVI, who understands the mystery of the priesthood, finds these crimes much more terrible than the non-Christian media can even conceive. That is why he has wanted it out in the daylight.

Yes, one of the strongest voices for resolution and reparation in all this has long been Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI.

To set the record straight in Milwaukee

This is a stop-the-presses story. The unrelenting attacks on Pope Benedict XVI have a lot to do with a lot of cases and allegations but one of the central flashpoints is the now notorious Milwaukee scandal. Because the New York Times has been driving this story without availing themselves of the facts behind it, the priest who was the presiding judge over the canonical criminal case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy has spoken out to correct the record.

Fr. Thomas Brundage, JCL, gives a compelling account.

I will limit my comments, because of judicial oaths I have taken as a canon lawyer and as an ecclesiastical judge. However, since my name and comments in the matter of the Father 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, I feel a freedom to tell part of the story of Father Murphy’s trial from ground zero.

As I have found that the reporting on this issue has been inaccurate and poor in terms of the facts, I am also writing from a sense of duty to the truth.

The fact that I presided over this trial and have never once been contacted by any news organization for comment speaks for itself.

Volumes.

My intent in writing this column is to accomplish the following:

To tell the back-story of what actually happened in the Father Murphy case on the local level;

To outline the sloppy and inaccurate reporting on the Father Murphy case by the New York Times and other media outlets;

To assert that Pope Benedict XVI has 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;

To set the record straight with regards to the efforts made by the church to heal the wounds caused by clergy sexual misconduct. The Catholic Church is probably the safest place for children at this point in history.

That is an enormous statement, and it has solid documentation to back it up. Which is why it should be in headlines all over the world.

The depth of understanding Fr. Brundage reveals here is as compelling as the way he tells it.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out the scourge that child sexual abuse has been — not only for the church but for society as well. Few actions can distort a child’s life more than sexual abuse. It is a form of emotional and spiritual homicide and it starts a trajectory toward a skewed sense of sexuality. When committed by a person in authority, it creates a distrust of almost anyone, anywhere.

His profile of abusers cuts to the core, no psycho-babble and no spin. The criminal mind and intent and behavior of abusers is the same, no matter who the perpetrator, common man or priest.

As for the numerous reports about the case of Father Murphy, the back-story has not been reported as of yet.

And that’s another stunning statement, given all that has been reported. Alleged. Charged. And perpetuated globally by constantly looping news cycles. In the case at ‘ground zero’ in Milwaukee, “the back-story has not been reported as of yet.”

Well it is now.

Between 1996 and August, 1998, I interviewed, with the help of a qualified interpreter, about a dozen victims of Father Murphy. These were gut-wrenching interviews. In one instance the victim had become a perpetrator himself and had served time in prison for his crimes. I realized that this disease is virulent and was 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. Grace-filled spiritual direction has been a Godsend.

Murphy’s response and Fr. Brundage’s handling of this case are well covered in this account. By him, and at this point, him alone, until others take note.

With regard to the inaccurate reporting on behalf of the New York Times, the Associated Press, and those that utilized these resources, first of all, I was never contacted by any of these news agencies but they felt free to quote me. Almost all of my quotes are from a document that can be found online with the correspondence between the Holy See and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee..

The problem with these statements attributed to me is that they were handwritten. The documents were not written by me and do not resemble my handwriting. The syntax is similar to what I might have said but I have no idea who wrote these statements, yet I am credited as stating them. As a college freshman at the Marquette University School of Journalism, we were told to check, recheck, and triple check our quotes if necessary. I was never contacted by anyone on this document, written by an unknown source to me. 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.

Big media are weaving their own tales out of only partial information and largely conjecture, rumor and the desire to make an account fit an agenda. They have it that Murphy was given a pass, but Fr. Brundage sets the record straight.

…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. Had I been asked to abate this trial, I most certainly would have insisted that an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church, or Pope John Paul II if necessary. That process would have taken months if not longer.

Second, with regard to the role of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in this matter, I have no reason to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information.

Third, the competency to hear cases of sexual abuse of minors shifted from the Roman Rota to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith headed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2001. Until that time, most appeal cases went to the Rota and it was our experience that cases could languish for years in this court. When the competency was changed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in my observation as well as many of my canonical colleagues, sexual abuse cases were handled 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.

Fourth, Pope Benedict has repeatedly apologized for the shame of the sexual abuse of children in various venues and to a worldwide audience. This has never happened before. He has met with victims. He has reigned in entire conferences of bishops on this matter, the Catholic Bishops of Ireland being the most recent. He has been most reactive and proactive of any international church official in history with regard to the scourge of clergy sexual abuse of minors. Instead of blaming him for inaction on these matters, he has truly been a strong and effective leader on these issues.

Finally, over the last 25 years, vigorous action has taken place within the church to avoid harm to children. Potential seminarians receive extensive sexual-psychological evaluation prior to admission. Virtually all seminaries concentrate their efforts on the safe environment for children.

And all  American dioceses are required to have some form of a ‘safe environment program’ in place, and they are extensive. They have become the model for the world, at this point.

Finally…

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.

Read the entire account, and encourage others to learn the truth and be part of upholding it. And note to media: Fr. Brundage’s contact information is at the bottom of that article. No more excuses.