After U.S. Abuse Revelation, the Vatican Fires Back

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Pier Paolo Cito / AP

John Pilmaier of Milwaukee and Peter Isely of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests show pictures of Pope Benedict XVI and Father Lawrence Murphy during a press conference at the Vatican

The news has been relentlessly bad for the Pope. Two weeks ago, Germany was scandalized by revelations that a pedophile priest was allowed to work again with children after being transferred in 1980 to the Archdiocese of Munich, which was then headed by the future Pontiff. Over the weekend, an apology the Pope issued for sexual abuse by Irish priests was deemed insufficient by many of the victims. Now the New York Times has run an article accusing Pope Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Vatican's doctrinal office, of not responding to requests in 1996 from the Archbishop of Milwaukee to have a priest stripped of his clerical status for alleged sexual abuse of some 200 deaf boys decades before.

As the Times posted its story on the accused priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, who died in 1998, the Holy See responded on the Web. In a statement linked on the Vatican's brand new Twitter account, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Papal spokesman, declared, "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." But Lombardi defended the decision not to remove Murphy from the "clerical state," saying the priest 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." Lombardi explained that the doctrinal office thought it wiser that church authorities in Wisconsin simply restrict Murphy's ministry and require him to take responsibility for his actions. Lombardi pointed out that earlier charges brought against Murphy by civil authorities were eventually dropped and insisted that, despite the Times allegation that the Vatican fought to keep the Murphy details confidential, the Holy See's rules did not require that such cases be kept secret.

The Times obtained the relevant documents from attorneys representing five victims of Murphy's in a civil suit against the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Former Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, who resigned in 2002 after revelations of an earlier relationship with another man, told the Times he brought the Murphy case to Rome in 1996 to try to bring healing to the victims. But Ratzinger's then deputy in the doctrinal office, Tarcisio Bertone, who is now Benedict's No. 2 man in the Vatican, agreed with a letter the ailing Murphy wrote asking to be allowed to live out his life "in the dignity of my priesthood," noting his ill health and the years that had passed since the accusations. After about two years of back-and-forth arguments, according to the Times, Bertone told the Milwaukee Archdiocese to take "pastoral" rather than disciplinary action regarding Murphy. The priest died soon after, at the age of 72, and was buried in his clerical vestments.

Officials in the church staunchly continue to defend the Pope. They say Benedict has pushed for far greater transparency and penitence than his predecessor, and certainly more than many of the local bishops who should have been the ones managing the individual cases. And so far, each new revelation from Ratzinger's past seems to show more administrative detachment than bad judgment from the future Pope — though that is still a surprising hands-off management style for the man who would earn a reputation as a micromanager as he rose to become the éminence grise in John Paul II's Vatican.

Vatican officials feel more and more convinced that there is a concerted campaign to damage the Catholic Church and its supreme leader. A senior official reacted with disgust after reading the latest article, saying, "It's obvious the New York Times has its mind made up. You have to ask why they didn't print a story earlier this month on the conviction of a Jewish rabbi in Brooklyn on eight counts of sex abuse." The official also referred to a libel case against Oprah Winfrey that involved sex-abuse allegations that was settled quietly on Wednesday. "But then why the front page for this story? They are targeting the Pope. There's a bloodlust for attacking the Catholic Church. We have to look at these cases one by one. There is plenty of embarrassment to go around: district attorneys, school teachers — take your pick."

Still, the Pope is the Pope, a global leader with very few equals in terms of pomp, history and circumstance. His links, however indirect, to specific cases of sexual abuse will necessarily catch the attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics. Another priest acknowledged that Benedict being specifically named in the Milwaukee and German cases just makes the news all the more troubling. "It's so volatile right now," he says. "Many of the faithful who were losing confidence in their bishops, now, it's in the Church Universal. What you read in paper: it's a real crucifixion for everybody."