VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican did not discipline a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing up to 200 deaf boys in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s as Church laws do not require automatic punishment, its spokesman said on Thursday.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that the Vatican did not defrock Rev. Lawrence Murphy in the late 1990s despite receiving clear warnings from his bishops that his case was serious and could embarrass the Church.
The report came amid mounting allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Europe and pressure on bishops, mostly in Ireland, to resign for failing to report cases to civil authorities.
Among 25 internal Church documents the Times posted on its website was a 1996 letter about Murphy to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican’s top doctrinal official and now Pope Benedict, showing he was informed of his case.
Ratzinger’s deputy first advised a secret disciplinary trial but later reversed that in 1998 after Murphy appealed directly to Ratzinger for clemency. The priest died later that year.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement that Murphy had broken the law but a civil probe into complaints against him in the mid-1970s had been dropped and the Vatican only learned of the allegations 20 years later.
“The canonical (Church law) question presented to the Congregation was unrelated to any potential civil or criminal proceedings against Father Murphy,” Lombardi said.
“In such cases, the Code of Canon Law does not envision automatic penalties.”
The 1996 letter to Ratzinger from the then Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland was not answered, the Times said.
After eight months, Weakland wrote a second letter to Ratzinger’s deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, who is now a cardinal and the pope’s secretary of state, or Vatican prime minister.
According to the documents on the Times website, Bertone first advised Weakland in 1997 to discipline Murphy according to a 1962 Vatican document ordering secrecy in handling cases of sexual misconduct by priests.
Murphy appealed directly to Ratzinger in 1998, saying he had repented for his sins and, at 72, was in poor health. Three months later, Bertone backtracked and advised only “pastoral measures” to deal with him. These measures are internal disciplinary steps such as barring him from public ministry.
The diocese of Superior, Wisconsin, where Murphy had moved in 1974 after his abuse cases had surfaced in Milwaukee, rejected this advice and proceeded to organize an internal trial. That work stopped when Murphy died four months later.
Lombardi said the Vatican did not tell bishops not to report abuse to civil authorities but critics note the 1962 document in Latin, known as Crimen sollicitationis (“crime of solicitation”) did not specifically say they should.
The critics say bishops steeped in the Church’s traditional culture of secrecy would assume they should avoid embarrassing it by going public with such issues.
The letters obtained by the Times from lawyers representing five abuse victims suing the Milwaukee archdiocese showed that Weakland and Bishop Raphael Fliss of Superior stressed to the Vatican the damage Murphy had done among deaf Catholics he ministered to as teacher and head of a school for the deaf.
A social worker’s notes from a confidential Milwaukee archdiocese interview with Murphy in 1993 showed he admitted abusing 19 boys but said allegations of about 200 cases were “likely to be fairly accurate.”
In Rome, leaders of the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests (SNAP) demonstrated in front of St. Peter’s Square holding up pictures of Murphy and some of his victims.
In a letter to Irish Catholics last week, Pope Benedict stressed the Church must cooperate with civil authorities in investigating sexual abuse allegations.
The Vatican’s chief prosecutor for such cases told an Italian Catholic newspaper this month that Church courts tried only about 20 percent of such cases secretly referred to Rome. About 60 percent of them ended with only internal sanctions.