Attorney: Lawsuit Against Holy See Lacks Merit

Says Abuse Tragedy Is Used as Media Campaign

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VATICAN CITY, APRIL 23, 2010 ( A U.S. lawsuit filed against the Holy See lacks merit and seems to be a publicity stunt, according to the Holy See’s attorney in the United States.

Today the Vatican press office published a statement from Attorney Jeffrey Lena in response to a lawsuit filed at a federal court in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by a victim of sexual abuse.

The victim says that he was molested by Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, who was accused of sexually abusing up to 200 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. The priest died in 1998.

Now, the victim is suing Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, claiming that Church policies perpetuated the abuse. He is stating that these Church leaders knew about the abuse since 1996 and should have done something about it at that time.

The California-based attorney for the Holy See acknowledged that “sympathy is due to the victims of the criminal acts committed by Father Lawrence Murphy.”

“By sexually abusing children, Murphy violated both the law and the trust that his victims had placed in him,” Lena affirmed.

But he clarified: “While legitimate lawsuits have been filed by abuse victims, this is not one of them. 

“Instead, the lawsuit represents an attempt to use tragic events as a platform for a broader attack — this one dependent on re-characterizing the Catholic Church as a worldwide ‘business enterprise.'”

“The case against the Holy See and its officials is completely without merit,” Lena asserted. “Most of the complaint rehashes old theories already rejected by U.S. courts.”

Although the matter was brought to the attention of the civil authorities in 1973, no criminal charges were ever filed against Father Murphy.

Decades later

The attorney continued, “With regard to Murphy himself, the Holy See and its officials knew nothing of his crimes until decades after the abuse occurred, and had no role whatsoever in causing plaintiff’s injuries.”

The matter was brought to the attention of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996. 

At that time, the local ordinary, rather than the congregation, was responsible for investigating the cases of sexual abuse by clergy. Only in 2001 were these cases moved to the Vatican’s jurisdiction.

However, Father Murphy’s case was brought to the congregation, headed at that time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, since the priest was accused of abuse in the confessional, a specific violation that was handled even then by this Vatican dicastery.

Vatican officials, including then-Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, at that time secretary of the congregation, met to discuss the case. Publicized meeting minutes state that they expressed regret over 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 decided nonetheless to penalize the priest, who was already advanced in age. They also began the process to investigate the charges of violating the sacrament of confession, an offense for which clergy can be prosecuted no matter the amount of time that has elapsed. 

During this process, Father Murphy passed away, at which time the case was closed.

Nonetheless, a victim has recently stepped forward to bring a case against the Church leaders, asking for the release of Vatican files on priests charged with sexual abuse. His lawyers are also bringing the charges against Cardinal Sodano, who was the Pope’s secretary of state in 1995; the victim wrote a letter to Cardinal Sodano, asking him to excommunicate Father Murphy.

Lena stated, “Given its lack of merit, the lawsuit — together with its de rigueur press conference and news releases — is simply the latest attempt by certain U.S. lawyers to use the judicial process as a tool of media relations.”

He concluded, “If necessary, we will respond more fully to this lawsuit in court and at the appropriate time.”

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On ZENIT’s Web page:

Attorney’s statement:

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