Vatican Spokesman Refutes Murphy Case Accusations

Clarifies Role of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

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By Genevieve Pollock

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2010 ( There were no cover-ups, the Vatican is confirming in response to media accusations that tried to implicate Benedict XVI in the case of a priest accused of abusing deaf children.

Today, several media sources followed the New York Times in reporting a story about Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who was accused of molesting up to 200 children.

The Holy See published the statement that Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, gave to the Times, in which he deplored this «tragic case» that «involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly.»

Father Murphy was accused of sexually abusing children while he worked as director of St. John School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, from July 1, 1963 to May 18, 1974.

«During the mid-1970s, some of Father Murphy’s victims reported his abuse to civil authorities, who investigated him at that time,» Father Lombardi acknowledged.

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee noted on their Web site that in the fall of 1973 the abuse was reported to the Milwaukee police, who turned the matter over to the city of St. Francis local authorities. No civil charges were filed.

At that same time, the allegations were brought to the attention of Archbishop William Cousins, then the head of the archdiocese. Father Murphy was removed from his post on May 18, 1974.

In September of that year, the priest relocated to the Diocese of Superior. A civil lawsuit was filed against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee regarding Murphy in 1975, and was resolved in 1976.

Decades later

Father Lombardi noted that «the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not informed of the matter until some 20 years later.»

A case synopsis from the Milwaukee Archdiocesan tribunal, publicized by the New York Times, reported that the then Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who eventually brought the case to the congregation, began to receive letters in 1995 regarding accusations against Father Murphy.

On Dec. 21 of that year, he ordered an investigation into the matter. When it became evident that the allegations were most likely true, and, given the fact that they were grave and involved a violation of the confessional, Archbishop Weakland decided to bring the matter to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at that time headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which deals with cases of the abuse of the sacrament of confession.

Father Lombardi affirmed: «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.»

In other words, it involved the Vatican instruction «Crimen Sollicitationis» (crime of soliciting), which deals with clergy who are accused of using the sacrament of confession to make sexual advances toward penitents. The document was published in 1962, and contains procedures for dealing with these serious cases.

The Vatican spokesman clarified: «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 this case, the civil authorities were notified of the abuse decades before news reached the Vatican.


Archbishop Weakland sent the letter to Cardinal Ratzinger on July 17, 1996. On Oct. 15, the archbishop ordered a judicial trial against Father Murphy.

Regarding the trial, Father Lombardi clarified today that «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, No. 2).»

The archdiocesan tribunal case synopsis detailed several other steps by which the trial moved forward in these months. 

It noted that on Jan. 6, 1998, Father Murphy himself wrote a letter to the Vatican congregation stating that the peremptory time period had elapsed, and requesting an exception from the case being heard.

However, the archdiocesan tribunal reported that the Vatican congregation responded to Father Murphy with an April 6, 1998, letter asserting that there are no set time periods for cases of solicitation, and refusing the request for exception.

The tribunal ended the synopsis by expressing the hope for an official judgment in August, 1998.

In today’s statement, Father Lombardi clarified, «It is important to note that the canonical question presented to the congregation was unrelated to any potential civil or criminal proceedings against Father Murphy.»

Vatican meeting

On May 30, 1998, Archbishop Weakland met with then Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, at that time secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Bishop Raphael Fliss, then bishop of Superior; and others, to discuss the case of Father Murphy.

In the minutes of the meeting, also publicized by the Times, the Church leaders discussed the fact that «because of the long period of time» since the events of the case, «it is no longer possible to start a civil trial in the state of Wisconsin.»

They referenced the «generous law of defense that exists in the U.S.A. and the difficulties that would arise from the execution of this case.»

The meeting participants noted that there were also «not enough elements to instruct a canonical trial,» but nonetheless stated that the diocese should remove the offending priest from the celebration of the Eucharist and consider «penal remedies.»

They underlined the «needed remorse and reform» of Father Murphy.

On Aug. 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland wrote to Archbishop Bertone outlining the action items that the archdiocese was pursuing in the case. Two days later, on Aug. 21, Father Murphy died of natural causes.

Upon receiving a letter informing him of the death, Archbishop Bertone responded on Sept. 28, affirming that «having taken note of his passing, the case of the accusation made against Father Murphy of solicitation in the Sacrament of Confession is, in effect, closed.»

Father Lombardi affirmed in his statement that at the time of the investigation by the congregation, Father Murphy «was elderly and in very poor health.» 

He decried the tragic events, however, noting, «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.»

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Full text of Father Lombardi’s statement:

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