Usually, we can all turn to the New York Times and the Washington Post with a reasonable degree of assurance that their writers and editors are top-notch journalists, who ferret out facts, put those facts in a proper context, and truly enlighten a reader’s understanding of whatever event is being reported on in the pages of their newspapers. Yesterday, not so much.

The New York Times’ article, by the usually reliable Laurie Goodstein, was not only unsupported by the documentation the paper cited, it seemed unrelated. From the documents the Times provided it seems abundantly clear that there was a monster priest, Father Murphy, in Milwaukee who abused dozens and dozens of deaf children, and that when this came to light in 1974, he was retired from ministry. Twenty years later, in 1996, a different charge was made against the priest, that he had granted absolution for sexual sins in which he was complicit. This was referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which was headed at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. To be clear – and this is important because the Times’ article seems to elide the charges – Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF had no jurisdiction over abuse claims in 1996. Charges of sexual abuse only became the CDF’s responsibility in 2001. To suggest that Cardinal Raztinger was not taking the charge of sexual abuse seriously is not just interpretatively wrong in this case but factually wrong: The charge of sexual abuse was not in front of him.

Let’s take an example from another story in yesterday’s paper to illustrate what I can only deem a certain tendentiousness in the Times story. Yesterday – and the day before – we learned of threats and acts of vandalism against members of Congress. Those threats were referred to the Justice Department and, specifically to the FBI. It is hoped the FBI will catch those responsible. One such case involved the cutting of a gas line at the home of a congressman’s brother. This, perhaps, necessitated calling the Environmental Protection Agency because the leaking gas might have caused some damage. But, if the people who cut the gas line, or threw a brick through a window, or called to threaten the life of a congressman and his children, if they are not caught, I am not going to blame the EPA, I am going to blame the FBI. In the Times’ article, they are trying to blame the EPA.

The case from Milwaukee was sent to Ratzinger because the charge of violating the confessional is reserved to the Holy See. By 1996, however, the priest in question was dying and Ratzinger recommended that the authorities not take any steps; nature had already taken its course and ended the possibility of a future threat and Sister Death was about the claiming the perpetrator for herself.

I will grant that there is something to the argument that the victims’ right to have their story told, to receive justice for the crimes against them, demanded a canonical trial of the priest no matter his physical condition. I will grant that there is a coldness in the correspondence that seems more focused on the reputation of the Church than on the rights of the victims. I will grant that it was the victims of this priest’s abuse, not Cardinal Ratzinger, who had a right to decide when and how to show mercy to Father Murphy. It is not difficult to see that Cardinal Ratzinger might have made the wrong decision in this case, but I submit that there is nothing in the documents the Times presents that suggests Cardinal Ratzinger’s moral culpability for the abuse itself or for any cover-up of that abuse. And the Times article certainly suggests moral culpability even though the documents do not support the charge.

While I am feeling defensive on behalf of my Church, let me point out one other sentence of the Times’ article that jumped off the page at me: "Father Murphy not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims…." Yet, the headline of the article does not say "Police and Prosecutors Looked the Other Way" nor does it appear that anyone at the Times asked where those prosecutors have risen in the political firmament. Only the Church and its leaders are held to a different standard.

Of course, we Catholics should hold ourselves to a different and higher standard. It is not exculpatory for the Church that most psychiatrists will tell you that when sexual abuse is discovered in a family, more family members seek to protect the perp than the victim, that is, they react the way the hierarchs acted. It is undoubtedly the case that in seeking to protect the reputation of the Church, many hierarchs destroyed that reputation, rather the way President Nixon was harmed not by the people on his "enemies list" but by the people on his staff who were trying to protect him. It is not exculpatory for the Church that the civil authorities in Wisconsin were evidently as morally dull to the horror being committed as were the ecclesiastical authorities.

Neither is it exculpatory for the Church that we are called to believe that every soul is capable of conversion or that God’s mercy extends even to those who perpetrate heinous acts of abuse against children. We could no more abandon these beliefs than we could abandon our belief in the empty tomb, indeed, I would suggest it is the same belief. This belief in God’s infinite mercy cannot obfuscate, it must enlighten, our awareness of cold, hard facts, like the evidently perpetual threat of recidivism among pedophiles. Our belief in the ineffable forbearance of the Almighty is an invitation to gratitude; but it is up to the victims of abuse, not the hierarchy, to decide when and how to display God’s forbearance to those who victimized them. Still, I hope every Catholic will admit that these noble sentiments, not just ecclesiastical self-protection and career advancement, were at work too. There is a lesson here in the complexity of the moral life, of how mixed our motives can be, of how a desire to forgive and to love can lead to tragedy when tough moral questions are not addressed.

I do not think any fair-minded commentator can doubt that the Church has changed the way it deals with charges of sexual abuse, achieved a better understanding of how to prevent it and what to do when those acts of prevention fail. I do not think any fair-minded reporter can fail to note the role Pope Benedict XVI has played in bringing these changes of attitude to the Vatican. As his recent letter to the Church in Ireland demonstrated, he has given notice to the bishops, priests and laity that the entire culture of the Church must change in response to what we have learned about ourselves in this crisis, and that the beginning of those changes must start with the hierarchs accepting responsibility for their actions in covering-up criminal wrong-doing in the past. The Holy Father does not need the support of a lowly blogger, but he and the Church he leads deserve fair treatment by journalists. Yesterday, neither the Pope nor the Church got a fair treatment in the Times.

Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 4/12/2011 - 8:50am
 found the arguments presented in this article to be convincing.  I do not believe that as the Catholic Church holds itself up to higher standards outsiders such as myself who do not buy into its self-described supernatural mission may hypocritically hold it to those standards too.
Mikael Hansson | 4/11/2010 - 12:22am
Just read and make up your mind!
 
http://documents.nytimes.com/reverend-lawrence-c-murphy-abuse-case#document/p1
Tysen Woodlock | 3/29/2010 - 9:30am
I found the arguments presented in this article to be convincing.  I do not believe that as the Catholic Church holds itself up to higher standards outsiders such as myself who do not buy into its self-described supernatural mission may hypocritically hold it to those standards too.
Michael Bindner | 3/26/2010 - 11:36am
This problem is as old as the early Church (pre-Roman). It was so old that the Gospel writers saw fit to say that for anyone who leads a child astray (most likely sexually), it would be better for them that they be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck. They would not have remembered our Lord's words (nor would our Lord spoken them) if there had not been a problem. Even Jesus knew we would always have this problem and seemed to favor harsher methods than the Holy Father approves of.
Ann Engelhart | 3/26/2010 - 11:34am
You say that Cardinal Ratzinger may have made a mistake in not defrocking tha priest, however at the time a canonical trail would have incurred a lengthy and complex process and would not seem practical considering that the man was dying. Thankfully, in 2001, when he became responsible for overseeing the abuse claims, the person in charge made it easier to streamline the cases...we know that person to be Cardinal Ratzinger!!! He also facilitated the following changes in church law:
- the inclusion in canon law of internet offences against children,- the extension of child abuse offences to include the sexual abuse of all under 18,- the case by case waiving of the statue of limitation and- the establishment of a fast-track dismissal from the clerical state for offenders.
He is not an idle observer. His actions speak as well as his words. (from the London Times)
 
Stephen SCHEWE | 3/26/2010 - 11:23am
In the spring of 2002, one of the lawyers named in the Times' article, Jeff Anderson, was representing clients pursuing claims against St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, where sexual abuses had taken place in the 1980s and 1990s.  St. John's had previously provided apologies and compensations to victims and restrictions on abusers; under Abbott John Klassen, additional dialogue resulted in a comprehensive settlement announced in October 2002 that proved to be a model of how the institutional Church could make redress for incidents of abuse.  During one of his original letters to the wider community about this dialogue, Abbott Klassen voluntarily made public an incident of abuse from even further in the past involving a former Abbott.  At the time, this was not even known in the monastic community.  Klassen wrote, ''Many commentators have observed that a culture of secrecy makes sexual abuse and exploitation possible. Therefore, I have determined that the monastic community and, you, a member of the larger Saint John's family, ought to know about these incidents involving a past leader of Saint John's.''  Klassen also made the point that ''Other allegations made against monks of Saint John's are a matter of public record and will be re-examined periodically by the media. Perhaps this is the only way our culture can reckon with the true pain caused by clerical sexual abuse.''  Finally, when the settlement was announced, it became clear that the Abbey had forgone many avenues of legal defense, including the statute of limitations.
As part of its commitment to healing, St. John's continues to sponsor retreats and education to prevent abuse.  Most recently, Abbott Klassen gave a talk on February 24th entitled:  ''Reconciliation:  A Scarred Church Faces a New Century.''
The scandal of sexual abuse will be with the Church indefinitely.  The approaches that provide reconciliation, like those taken at the Abbey, are well documented.  The only remaining question is how much unnecessary pain and suffering will take place before the day when the wider Church's leaders catch up to their responsibilities, making voluntary, full disclosures and reaching comprehensive settlements.  In publishing Goodstein's article, the Times is playing a beneficial role in bringing that day closer.
Vince Killoran | 3/26/2010 - 9:57am
I don't think I agree with you on this one MSW. Two points, and then I promise (especially after yesterday!) to stop and benefit from reading others' posts:
 
1. "I hope every Catholic will admit that these noble sentiments, not just ecclesiastical self-protection and career advancement, were at work too."  I think the problem here is that those "noble sentiments" are wrapped around so much of arrogance and secrecy that many Catholics will not find them compelling. In the context of what happened, they carry little weight.
 
2. "[H]e has given notice to the bishops, priests and laity that the entire culture of the Church must change. . ." Given the way the bishops and the Vatican have responded since ca. 2001 it is difficult to see that they have made the changes necessary for this to emerge. There have been mostly words, a few (insufficient) gestures, and obfuscation. What crystallizes this for me is  the appointment of Card. Law to his current post.
 
 
Anonymous | 3/27/2010 - 3:16pm
Yet nary a word on the one-hundred twelve victims of the Jesuits is Germany.
Anonymous | 3/27/2010 - 1:52pm
I usually agree with MSW... But with Saturdays news he will need help gathering up all the names of new European and US papers  that he would need to add to his 'Shame on NYT' List.  Expect more next week.. when will the seniors take that slow walk to the Papal apartment??.. who will be the Henry Kissinger who will kneel and  pray with the Pope?
Craig McKee | 3/27/2010 - 2:19am
Following Mr. Winters' line of reasoning,  just what should readers make of this recent sound-byte from a top papal aide:
''The Vatican today denied allegations of any cover-up in the sexual scandal allegations and denounced the recent revelations as a “smear campaign” against the Pope and his aides. “This is a pretext for attacking the church,” Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins said. “There is a well-organized plan with a very clear aim,” he said. Saraiva Martins also said that while he was in favor of zero tolerance now, he could understand why some bishops covered up cases of child abuse in the past: “We should not be too scandalized if some bishops knew about it but kept it secret. This is what happens in every family, you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public,” he said. He also accused lawyers of “wanting to make a lot of money” by digging up decades-old cases and filing lawsuits.''
 
W Fox | 3/26/2010 - 3:41pm
You’re right. The problem with the claims of sex abuse in the RCC is all the fault of the New York Times and the Washington Post. There just couldn’t be any cover-ups, ecclesiastical self-protection or career advancement at work here.  The Church has changed the way it deals with charges of sexual abuse. It’s either one of three things; the mass media’s fault; the victim’s fault or an opportunity for spiritual and scriptural reflection.
 Your piece convinces me that the priest, bishops, cardinals and now pope of the RCC have really not committed any kind of sex crime with children. Nor is this a cover-up or scandal.(even though it looks and smells like one to the rest of the unbiased non-RCC world) What you’ve done in the RCC is very scriptural and religious. They’ve taken option number 3. Reflect and follow Mark 10:13-14 literally and at face value.
 The changed church is following in the footsteps of the new understanding of jesus. For it is written:  
And they brought young children to Him, that He should touch them: and His disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was much displeased, and said unto them; suffer the little children to come unto me,
 And the RCC has surely made the little children suffer; suffer long hard and in silence.
 This must be what you catholic apologists call a miracle or true faith in action. Keep those church changes coming. The claims of the pope’s spokesmen “He didn’t know” will start to get traction any day now.  
 
Keep up the good work Rat(head of the inquisition)zinger in protecting children and apologizing. Your claim of “I’m so so so so sorry” will also start to get traction any day now. And be sure to have your apologists get out and stay on message with the Vatican denial talking point.
 You’re pope now. You’re OK. You’ve made it all better. You are insulated, isolated, infallible and totally out of touch with reality.
Carolyn Disco | 3/26/2010 - 3:13pm
Thank you, Grant, for pointing out the case was part of Ratzinger's portfolio because some of the abuse involved solicitation in the confessional. Those went directly to him before 2001, and is why the Maciel case as well was on his desk in the late 1990's. There is no statute of limitations where confession is involved.
 
In granting mercy to Murphy, Ratzinger apparently failed to do due diligence to learn there were solid admissions of guilt in 1993, with no remorse at all thereafter - despite Murphy's soppy claims to the contrary. Murphy pleaded not guilty in the Vatican case and lied. So Ratzinger believes him, or discounts the evidence? The social worker's report even noted Murphy's admitted preferences for victims: 
 
no minority boys who might know more about sex, no overweight kids, parents unavailable or distant, hero-worshipped him, lacking in social skills, etc. etc.
 
Congratulations to the NYTimes for its reporting on the Hullermann case in Munich that involved Ratzinger and on the Murphy case. Outstanding work. I expected the subsequent complaints about coverage from Vatican sources and others, but it is of no substance.
Pearce Shea | 3/26/2010 - 2:05pm
Ed et al. It should be pointed out that the current Pope is behind a great many of the good and forceful changes made in church policy in respect to this issue. What is, I think, most damning in respect to the Times' own journalistic integrity is that all pretense of simply reporting on abuses has gone out the window. Are we hearing about new abuse cases or just about those cases which can be used to denounce the Pope?
 
Indeed, the last two articles run by the times on this matter have relied entirely on speculation to justify themselves (other than that they, as the Vatican pointed out, simply re-hash old information, released by the Church itself).
 
Grant- there is a difference between holding oneself to a higher standard and being held to a similar standard by others. We as Catholics ought to hold ourselves and our Church to a higher standard than we do for say, other churches or atheists. We are members of the one true Church and all that. But when the Times or anyone/thing else tries to pull the same stunt they are being disingenuous, to say the least: the Times is not a Catholic journal and it in no way believes the Church to be the one true church. To look at it differently: I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to the work I do. It's a large part of why my work is better than average. If my employers and clients held me to that same standard that I did, however, then I would be an above-average employee, I would simply be underpaid. So really, it's a matter of fairness and intellectual honesty. And along those lines, I would reiterate what MSW and Abp Dolan have already asked: how often do you see the sister article to the ones appearing in the times which investigates all the failings of the civil authorities and where they are now?
Anonymous | 3/26/2010 - 11:44am
Steve.. excellent summary; the way the Abbot resolved the issue. would that bishops' diocese/chancery have that type of governence.. a monastic culture may be the way a bishop should govern? getting rid of the 'Your Excellency' 'Your Emminence''is the necessary first step.. do some really think thoses titles are in the 'deposit of faith'????
Anonymous | 3/26/2010 - 11:10am
Please stop parsing the 24 hour Times story to find excuses. The church has been in a many decade cover-up. Stop blaming the media .. is the defense of the Pope and triumphalist church going to be  run by Wild Bill Donahue and his ilk? Pope BXVI is 83 ... is he worth and does he think he is worth a world wide Church meltdown? Since only one in four abuse revelations are ever revealed...What are you going to say about next weeks revelation..?? 
COMMONWEAL | 3/26/2010 - 10:31am
Michael Sean, you seem to answer your own objections. You write: ''To be clear – and this is important because the Times’ article seems to elide the charges – Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF had no jurisdiction over abuse claims in 1996. Charges of sexual abuse only became the CDF’s responsibility in 2001.'' Yet, as the article makes clear, Weakland wrote to Ratzinger precisely because he had learned that the priest's abuse may have involved solicitation in the confessional. That made it Ratzinger's business. Is your complaint with the Times or with Weakland? Should he have contacted someone else? (And, of course, apart from jurisdictional issues, it was no secret that Ratzinger enjoyed a special influence in the governance of the church.) Is it factually wrong to suggest that Ratzinger ignored Weakland's entreaties?
Likewise, you complain that the Times article holds the church to a higher standard while admitting that the church should be held to a higher standard. 
Readers may find it interesting to note that the letter to Ratzinger from the ordained molester of Milwaukee refers only to ''accusations'' and ''allegations'' of ''alleged'' sexual abuse. The man declined to admit to the abuse in writing to Ratzinger, despite the fact that he had disclosed his crimes to a social worker in 1993-without remorse. Was he a trustworthy source?
 
 
Tom Maher | 3/26/2010 - 10:28am
Yes, The New York Times needs to get their facts straight. The Times does a disservice to its readers by using inaccurate information and then drawing conclusions based on misinformation. Journalist are a very drive group of individuals sometimes to a fault. They can kid themselves to create a juicy story that noone else has. The journalist and their editors need more quality control over their product. The Times is valeuable only because of the accuracy and detail of its reporting.

Unfortuantely the church does have a sex abuse problem going back many decades and with numerous and widespread occurences of abuse. The severity of this problem can not be minimize. Journalist very constructively were most responsible in uncovering the scope, magnitude and reality of this severe problem within the church. What they uncovered was very bad news indeed that greatly impacted the chuch.

Journalist are to be thanked for making this problem more widely known. The sex abuse scandel within the church had to be exposed. The church very regretably failed to effective deal with this problem on its own. The problem was known by the church to exist for decades. Offending clergy would repeat their crimes decade after decade. Basic decency requires that sex crimes committed by clergy must be discoverd, stopped and prosecuted. Their is no justice or charity in the Church covering up criminal actions of its clergy.

Accurate reporting by journalist is needed. Inaccurate reporting is excessive and destuctive and not needed by a church that already has plenty of real organizational problems.
Thomas Piatak | 3/26/2010 - 3:06pm
An excellent post.