Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Priest defends Vatican's handling of Wis. scandal

Last updated March 30, 2010 6:37 p.m. PT

Priest defends Vatican's handling of Wis. scandal

MILWAUKEE -- A priest who investigated allegations that another priest sexually abused some 200 deaf Wisconsin children over a 24-year span defended the Vatican's handling of the case Tuesday, saying it's unfair to assume the current pope knew about the investigation at the time.

The Rev. Thomas Brundage, who in the mid-1990s helped investigate the allegations against the Rev. Lawrence Murphy for the Milwaukee Archdiocese, said by phone from Alaska that the Vatican's office of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith receives an enormous amount of mail. He said it's unfair to assume that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, saw two letters addressed to him outlining the abuse allegations.

Rembert Weakland, then the Milwaukee archbishop, sent letters to Ratzinger's office twice in 1996 reporting the allegations against Murphy, who died in 1998 and is accused of molesting boys from 1950-74 at St. John's School for the Deaf near Milwaukee, where he worked.

"It's matter of protocol that when you write to a department at the Vatican you write it to the head of the department," said Brundage, 47, now the pastor of St. Michael Parish in Palmer, Alaska. "We have no way of knowing whether the letter got to his desk because of the volume of material he has to deal with."

He likened the process to writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, saying the editor doesn't necessarily read every such letter.

The Vatican has been under fire since the recent release of church and Vatican documents that show that Ratzinger's office halted internal judicial proceedings that could have led to Murphy's defrocking.

Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone, who was Ratzinger's deputy at the time of the investigation and is now the Vatican's secretary of state, told the Wisconsin bishops to begin secret disciplinary proceedings, according to the documents. But Bertone halted that process after Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he already had repented, was ailing and that the case's statute of limitations had run out.

The documents contain no response from Ratzinger.

The Vatican has vigorously defended its handling of the Murphy case. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has denounced what it called a "clear and despicable intention" to strike at Benedict "at any cost."

Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki on Tuesday said any mistakes in the handling of the Murphy case were made not in Rome but in Milwaukee, where officials should have done more to seek justice. "And for that I beg your forgiveness in the name of the church and in the name of this Archdiocese of Milwaukee," he added.

Mike Finnegan, an attorney for five men who have sued the Milwaukee Archdiocese alleging fraud, said it's "disingenuous" for Brundage or anyone to suggest Benedict could remain unaware of the allegations. The letters were written directly to him, Finnegan said, and only he would have had the authority to stop the judicial proceedings or have Murphy defrocked.

"Not only was the information on his doorstep, it was in his lap," Finnegan said. "And for Brundage to simply try to deflect that from Ratzinger, knowing the way it works, is simply just protecting the pope."

The documents include a letter addressed to Bertone in which Weakland said he instructed Brundage to formally end any judicial proceedings against Murphy.

Brundage said he doesn't remember receiving any such instructions and that if he had he would have insisted an appeal be made to the supreme court of the church or to Pope John Paul II. He speculated that Weakland didn't tell him about the decision because Murphy died two days after the letter was dated, rendering the judicial process moot.

Brundage also disputed previous media accounts, including in reports from The Associated Press, attributing to him quotes from documents with his name handwritten at the top. While the words may have been his, the handwriting wasn't, he said.

The documents included allegations that Murphy solicited boys in the confessional by asking about circumcision, and described the stories as "horrendous," which Brundage said was his word. He said he didn't know who wrote those documents or under what context, but he didn't disagree with any of the information in them.

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