Vatican Statement on “Murphy Case”

Many of you have undoubtedly seen or heard about the story that appears on the front page of today’s New York Times concerning a priest from Wisconsin who sexually abused hearing impaired children in the 1970’s, and the response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, when this matter was brought to their attention in the late 1990’s.  You may not have seen the entire statement released by Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., the Vatican spokesman, regarding this matter.  Here it is.


VATICAN CITY, 25 MAR 2010 (VIS) – Given below is the complete text of the English-language declaration made yesterday, 24 March, by Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. to the New York Times:

“The tragic case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, a priest of the archdiocese of Milwaukee, involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what he did. By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Fr. Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him.

“During the mid-1970s, some of Fr. Murphy’s victims reported his abuse to civil authorities, who investigated him at that time; however, according to news reports, that investigation was dropped. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not informed of the matter until some twenty years later.

“It has been suggested that a relationship exists between the application of ‘Crimen sollicitationis’ and the non-reporting of child abuse to civil authorities in this case. In fact, there is no such relationship. Indeed, contrary to some statements that have circulated in the press, neither ‘Crimen’ nor the Code of Canon Law ever prohibited the reporting of child abuse to law enforcement authorities.

“In the late 1990s, after over two decades had passed since the abuse had been reported to diocesan officials and the police, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was presented for the first time with the question of how to treat the Murphy case canonically. The Congregation was informed of the matter because it involved solicitation in the confessional, which is a violation of the Sacrament of Penance. It is important to note that the canonical question presented to the Congregation was unrelated to any potential civil or criminal proceedings against Fr. Murphy.

“In such cases, the Code of Canon Law does not envision automatic penalties, but recommends that a judgment be made not excluding even the greatest ecclesiastical penalty of dismissal from the clerical state. In light of the facts that Fr. Murphy 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, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith suggested that the archbishop of Milwaukee give consideration to addressing the situation by, for example, restricting Fr. Murphy’s public ministry and requiring that Fr. Murphy accept full responsibility for the gravity of his acts. Fr. Murphy died approximately four months later, without further incident”.

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10 Responses to “Vatican Statement on “Murphy Case””

  1. Tony Adams says:

    The pedophile priest scandal contains so many overlapping and disturbing issues for the faithful to deal with:

    a) Does this widespread sin/crime tell us that the “personality” of the priesthood is built on unhealthy premises?

    b) Have most priests known all along about how widespread the problem is?

    c) Is mandatory celibacy the root of the problem?

    e) Is the Pope responsible for this mess in the way that the head of General Motors or of a failing financial institution must take responsibility and step down?

    f) Are priests well-trained for celibacy?

    g) Even priests who do not have active sex lives, sublimate through food, booze, money and entertainment. Is that really celibacy?

    h) Homosexuality practiced by clergy is getting wrongly mixed up with the pedophile priest scandal. Even good gay priests are being brought down by this. Can the Catholic priesthood return to health without some major changes?

    I have my opinions, but this is your house, so I’ll just leave having voiced the serious questions in everyone’s mind.

    These are sad times that call for bold and heroic leadership. You know how we always say that the Holy Spirit moves in strange ways? Well, the Spirit may be at work in these revelations which may lead us to a renewed Church in which women priests and married priests (both straight and gay) will lead us. No press release from Father Lombardi can stop the movement of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Francis says:

    Dear Archbishop Dolan,
    I hope you will be able to get a letter published in the Times which reveals these true facts and their sequence of events. Maybe you persevere with submitting another op ed.

  3. Nancy says:

    I’m a historian, and I’m appalled by the misleading nature of the chronology presented in this statement. The omissions here are profoundly self-serving, and undermine my trust in my Church’s leadership even more.

    Fr. Lombardi notes that Fr. Murphy’s victims reported his crimes to civil authorities during the 1970s, who declined to prosecute Fr. Murphy. His statement then jumps in the next sentence to the 1990s, when he notes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was first notified of the matter.

    Fr. Lombardi thus omits entirely the fact that Fr. Murphy’s victims also brought these crimes to the attention of the bishop responsible for Fr. Murphy during the 1970s. According to the NYT’s reports and the documents posted on their website, Fr. Murphy’s superiors chose in 1974 only to transfer him away from the school where he had abused hundreds of children. He was not punished at all, and was allowed to continue doing ecclesiastical work (including with children) for decades longer. The bishops thus concealed Fr. Murphy’s crimes, and allowed him continued opportunity to abuse yet more children.

    The bishops failed to protect the faithful. And these failures occurred repeatedly during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. By mentioning only the civil authorities and by jumping over decades in his statement, Fr. Lombardi implies that the matter was only brought to the attention of Church leadership in the 1990s, which is untrue.

    He also omits the fact that by the 1990s, Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee urged the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defrock Fr. Murphy, since his crimes had now become well-known in the deaf community and the fact that Fr. Murphy had never been punished or held to account in any way was causing enormous pain in that diocese. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith chose to overrule Archbishop Weakland.

    The omissions in Fr. Lombardi’s statement undermine his credibility and that of the Vatican. Stonewalling, denying, and attacking the messenger (the NYT) will not resolve this crisis, nor heal the breach.

    I have confidence that the Church will now practice a zero tolerance towards child abuse by Catholic clergy in the future, and I willingly entrusted my children’s religious education to our current clergy. But statements like these make it clear that our leadership is determined to avoid any discussion of an equally grave evil: our own bishops’ concealment and enabling of predators over many decades.

  4. Tony Adams says:

    Dear Archbishop Dolan,

    You have my deep gratitude and respect for having published my comment on the website of the archdiocese. I’ve heard from many gay Catholics who are glad for your fearless opening of a dialogue about these very serious matters that is free of sensational headlines. Ya done good. Strange and wonderful is the way grace works, even through a man like me who has had an ordained life so drastically different from yours. I have never doubted that the Church will sort itself out of its human errors if its leaders will just trust what is in their hearts. Ad multos annos.

    PS: Our mutual friend in heaven, Msgr Edward Petty, is smiling. He was right about you.

  5. Irenaeus says:

    Words that should calm the soul…
    “If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates. My reason for doing this would be, that if Christ is in any one of the churches of the world today, He must still be hated as He was when He was on earth in the flesh. If you would find Christ today, then find the Church that does not get along with the world. Look for the Church that is hated by the world, as Christ was hated by the world. Look for the Church which is accused of being behind the times, as Our Lord was accused of being ignorant and never having learned. Look for the Church which men sneer at as socially inferior, as they sneered at Our Lord because He came from Nazareth. Look for the Church which is accused of having a devil, as Our Lord was accused of being possessed by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. Look for the Church which the world rejects because it claims it is infallible, as Pilate rejected Christ because he called Himself the Truth. Look for the Church which amid the confusion of conflicting opinions, its members love as they love Christ, and respect its voice as the very voice of its Founder, and the suspicion will grow, that if the Church is unpopular with the spirit of the world, then it is unworldly, and if it is unworldly, it is other-worldly. Since it is other-worldly, it is infinitely loved and infinitely hated as was Christ Himself. …
    -Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979)

  6. Nanette says:

    Thank you, Nancy, for your courageous observations about this document. Father Lombardi’s “declaration” comes across as nothing more than a rationalization, a grasping at irrelevant straws in a pathetic attempt to explain away the RCC’s decades of inexcusable neglect and whitewashing of truly heinous crimes.

    If this p.r. rep and other Vatican spokesmen had a decent set of morals, or so much as a shred of sensitivity for the affected families, they would promptly and forcefully accept full responsibility for the horrible things that happened (and most likely are still happening) around the world under their watch.

    Then they would begin the process of selling off a good portion of the gold, property, investments, and other holdings they control, for the purpose of creating a trust fund to generously compensate the affected victims as a token of remorse. Money won’t bring back the victims’ lost innocence and ruined childhoods. But it would go a long way toward addressing the bitterness, hurt and anger now felt by so many of those betrayed by their priests and their bishops. I’ve never understood why the Pope and his colleagues at the very top of the church hierarchy feel the need to live in such luxury and comfort; it’s hard to imagine Jesus Christ living this way.

    Finally, if the church were truly sincere about addressing this problem, it would form national committees (at least one in every nation that houses Catholics) made up of law enforcement personnel, civil attorneys, AGs, child psychologists, sex therapists, philosophers, social workers, medical experts, and representatives of the victims’ families that would be charged with identifying the most effective ways to prevent such tragedies from every happening again.

    But none of these things will ever happen, in part because of fear, and in part because the church lawyers would never consent to such things. The lawyers have become the Vatican’s most important advisers. Everybody’s out to save their own skin, no matter how much such stonewalling further agonizes the victims.

    An outraged Wisconsinite

  7. Northcountry1 says:

    This is my first time here and I want to thank Archbishop Dolan for permitting replies–that is refreshing. But I also want to thank the historian “Nancy” for setting the record straight about the trail of Father Murphy. I’m coming late in the day to the blog and also the Murphy chronology. it is appalling and speaks loudly to the veracity of Father Lombardi. I read today that he claims not to have consulted the Pope on any of this. Astounding.
    But again, thanks Archbishop Dolan for this openness.

  8. Laurie says:

    It is time to stand up for all the abused children and children everywhere. Everyone deserves their day in court and all victims should be heard and not intimidated by anyone ignoring their voice. The church must step back and just LISTEN to the alleged victims.

  9. Greg says:

    Dear Nancy, I am also an historian, and I agree with you that the Milwaukee bishops dropped the ball in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. This was criminal negligence. However, the chronology as presented by Father Lombardi is relevant because it contextualizes the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s role in this case. Several Milwaukee bishops were indeed complicit in a cover-up. Cardinal Ratzinger was not, and given the way different news outlets are blaming him of “covering up” the Murphy scandal, Ratzinger’s non-involvement is a relevant point.

    Moreover, your statement that the Vatican overruled Weakland is correct but not the whole story. As an historian you should know you need to go to the sources and not simply trust the journalists. The CDF did explicitly leave the door open to restart the ecclesiastical trial and did leave the door opening for defrocking if Murphy did not show proper penitence, stating “altrimenti si esporrebbe al rischio che gli vengano imposte misure più rigorose, non esclusa la dimissione dallo stato clericale” (If you read Italian go to pages 70-71 of the PDF published by the Times. In English it reads, “Otherwise he would expose himself to the risk that more rigorous measures would be imposed, not excluding discharge from the clerical state.” Of course, this was not pursued only because Father Murphy died soon after. The italics are in the original document by the way.

    How did the NYT title their story Vatican Declined to Defrock Priest Who Abused Boys even though the CDF clearly was leaving the door open for defrocking at some later date. It seems no one bothered to read the original sources. The original minutes of this meeting were only rendered in Italian. When the minutes were sent to the archdiocese of Milwaukee, the judicial vicar (who did not read Italian) ran them through a computer translator, which predictably butchered large portions of the translation. When the translator tried to translate the portion of the text that left the door open to defrocking, it must have come out as garbled nonsense, which the vicar simply deleted since he couldn’t make sense of it. So the Times people must have just read the computer translation. But please. Doesn’t anyone at the NYTs read Italian?

  10. John says:


    The local diocese was aware of Fr. Murphy early on, and Archbishop Weakland could have proceeded against Fr. Murphy anytime. However, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith wasn’t informed of the case until 1990s. Archbishop Weakland was NOT asking the CDF to defrock Fr. Murphy. Archbishop Weakland was asking how to proceed given that he just learned that the case involved solicitation during confession.

    Within a year of hearing from Archbishop Weakland, the CDF advised a canonical trial against Fr. Murphy. When the question of statute of limitation came up, the CDF rightly responded that the statute doesn’t apply.

    So, you can blame Archbishop Weakland for not doing anything about the case for 2 decades, but can’t extend that blame to the CDF or to the Pope. Under canon law at the time, the principal responsibility for sexual-abuse cases lay with the local bishop. Archbishop Weakland had from 1977 onwards the responsibility of administering penalties to Father Murphy.

    Lombardi wasn’t interested in defending Archbishop Weakland, but to defend the CDF and the Pope from allegations that are not supported by the evidence.