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There was no cover-up

· In response to ‘The New York Times’ article ·

Transparency, firmness and severity in shedding light on various cases of sexual abuse committed by priests and religious: are the criteria that Benedict XVI has been pointing out to the whole Church with constancy and calmness.

It is a way of operating – consistent with his background and with his more than 20 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which is obviously feared by those who do not want the truth to come out and by those who would prefer to exploit, on no grounds, dreadful episodes and painful events that in some cases date back several decades.

The latest example of this is the story published today in the American daily The New York Times, together with a comment on the serious case of the priest Lawrence C. Murphy, who abused deaf children, in a Catholic Institution where he worked between 1950 and 1974. According to the article's reconstruction of the facts, based on the abundant documentation provided by the lawyers of some of the victims, the reports on the priest's conduct were only sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone Secretary – in July 1996 by the then-Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee in order to obtain instructions concerning the correct canonical procedure to follow. The request did not in fact refer to accusations of sexual abuse, but to the violation of the Sacrament of Penance perpetrated by solicitation in the confessional, which happens only when the priest induces the penitent to commit a sin against the Sixth Commandment (can. 1387).

It is important to observe – as the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See said – that this canonical query presented to the Congregation was in no way connected with a potential civil or penal procedure with regard to Fr Murphy: against whom the Archdioceses had moreover initiated a canonical procedure, as is evident from the same abundant documentation published online by the New York daily.

The Congregation answered the Archbishop's request with a letter signed by Archbishop Bertone on 24 March 1997, with instructions to proceed in accordance with what the Crimen sollicitationis (1962) establishes.

As can easily be deduced from reading the reconstruction by the New York Times, there was no cover-up in the case of Fr Murphy. And this is confirmed by the documentation attached to the article in question, including the letter that Fr Murphy addressed in 1998 to the then- Cardinal Ratzinger, asking that the canonical procedure be interrupted because of his seriously bad health.

In this case too the Congregation answered, through Archbishop Bertone, inviting the Ordinary of Milwaukee to put into practice all the pastoral measures provided by Canon 1341 in order to obtain reparation for the scandal and the establishment of justice.

This end is indisputably reaffirmed by the Pope, as his recent Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland demonstrates. Yet the prevalent tendency of the media is to disregard the facts and to put a spin on interpretations in order to spread an image of the Catholic Church as though she were solely responsible for sexual abuses, an image that does not correspond with reality. And which, on the contrary, obviously serves the ignoble intention to succeed at all costs in blaming Benedict XVI and his closest collaborators.

Statement of the Director of the Holy See Press Office

The following is the full text of the statement given by Fr Federico Lombardi, sj, to “The New York Times” on 24 March 2010.

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 20 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 (cf. Canon 1395, n. 2). 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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