E-mail interview about the priest scandals

From Cor ad Cor
Jump to navigation Jump to search

This is a reformatted text of my answers to questions I was asked in April, 2010. Pekka Mykkänen's article, "Paha paimen" ("Bad shepherd") was published on 25 April as the lead article in the Sunday section--in Finnish, of course. It is not available online, so far as I know.

My name is Pekka Mykkänen. I am the US correspondent of the largest newspaper in Finland, the Helsingin Sanomat. I am based in Washington DC.

The Finnish-language Helsingin Sanomat was founded 1889. It is the largest daily newspaper in Scandinavia with a circulation of about 400,000.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, "The Helsingin Sanomat's foreign coverage is among the best in the world, and its presentation tends to be unbiased and balanced."

Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish)

Etiquette bids me say that I am pleased to meet you, although I wish it were not under these circumstances.

You will find a short vita for me here on my vanity site:


My professional web pages are here:


I am working on an article about the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. The main focus of my story is the abuse conducted by Lawerence Murphy in Wisconsin, his victims and how his case relates to the wider Catholic Church sex abuse scandals.

I would greatly appreciate if you would have time to answer my questions here via email or on the phone. Please skip over any question that you don’t feel you have an answer for or that would require too much of your time. I would greatly appreciate any links or study papers that you think would help me in understanding this topic.

These two are essential:

The original article by the canon lawyer in charge of the Murphy case.

A later correction is included at the bottom of this version.

1. The scandal in Wisconsin appears huge and special in many ways: up to 200 victims spanning several years and decades, plenty of documentation and so on. How does it compare to other scandals, is it the worst involving just one priest?

I don't know and I don't have the resources to answer that question. It is unquestionably a horror story. What Fr. Murphy did was evil. It is indicative of the kind of sin and stupidity that has brought such shame to the church.

2. It has been reported that three successive archbishops in Wisconsin were told about Father Murphy sexually abusing children but they never reported it to criminal or civil authorities. How can this have happened?

I'm not a lawyer and I don't play one in my dreams.

I'm a systematic theologian who loves Jesus and His Body, the Church.

I would bet that Wisconsin did not have the kind of manadatory reporting laws on its books prior to 1974 (which is when Fr. Murphy was removed from office and ceased to abuse the children in the school).

So far as I know, only 26 states have such laws on the books at the present time here in the United States. The legislation is relatively recent and (I imagine) the case law is young.

I do not know any of the bishops, priests, or victims involved in the case, so anything I could say would be pure speculation.

3. Some media reports draw a direct connection between Pope Benedict XVI and the case of Father Murphy. Is it justified to assume – based on the documentation of the case - that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was aware of Father Murphy’s crimes and intervened in the case through his deputy in order to halt the proceedings against him?


Cardinal Ratzinger's office did not have sole authority over the crimes of priests until 2001.

"CDF" stands for "Congregatio pro doctrina fidei"--in English, the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith." (In earlier times, it was called the Inquisition.)

Fr. Murphy died while he was on trial in 1998.

No one in Rome halted the proceedings against Fr. Murphy. His bishop, Rembert Weakland, made the request for reasons unknown to me.

Weakland paid $450,000 of church money to try to have a former lover keep silence about their homosexual relationship:

I am not in a position to say why Weakland said in his letter to Rome that he ordered Brundage to abate the case. Murphy's death ended the proceedings against him two days after Weakland wrote to Rome.

"This draft letter became the text of the Aug. 19, 1998, letter from Archbishop Weakland to then-secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone in which Archbishop Weakland declared that he had instructed me to formally abate the case" (Brundage).

"With regard to the role of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in this matter, I have no reason to believe that he was involved at all. Placing this matter at his doorstep is a huge leap of logic and information" (Brundage).

4. Does the Catholic Church have a different understanding of what to do when it learns about sexual abuse of children – perhaps treating them as sins that can be forgiven instead of crimes that must be punished?

That most certainly was the case in times past. I don't think it was ever a matter of written policy. It was the culture of the day.

From a theological standpoint, the Church is committed to the idea that Jesus died for all sinners--including all of the Judases who have betrayed Jesus from the first generation of believers to this very day. We have to belive that His death is sufficient reparation for the sins of all human beings. Jesus did not die for good people; he died for evildoers. That includes ordained evildoers.

5. There seems to be no end to the scandals ...

Let's distinguish between the commission of the crimes and the reportage about them, if we may.

This timeline of what has been done in the U.S. shows that the bishops have been aware of the problem--and have been working to find the right way to address it--for 25 years.

Murphy was removed from office in 1974. I have not heard that he abused children in the last 25 years of his life. I do not know where he lived or what he did during that quarter-century. I do not know whether he was sent to treatment or whether he repented of his sins. I do not have any access to sources to find out (I live and work in Buffalo, New York, and do not serve on any commissions involved in the issue.)

As I understand it, Cardinal Ratzinger pressed to have all cases against priests consolidated under the CDF; that policy took effect in 2001. Since then he seems to have acted in a praiseworthy fashion to deal with those cases in a timely manner. He has recently forced the resignation of five Irish bishops and wrote a very strong letter to the faithful in Ireland:

"On several occasions since my election to the See of Peter, I have met with victims of sexual abuse, as indeed I am ready to do in the future. I have sat with them, I have listened to their stories, I have acknowledged their suffering, and I have prayed with them and for them. Earlier in my pontificate, in my concern to address this matter, I asked the bishops of Ireland, 'to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected, and above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes'" (Letter to the Bishops of Ireland, 28 October 2006).

No pope has ever been more clear or forthright on this issue than Benedict.

I do not think the incidence of abuse of children is on the rise; what seems to be happening is a surge of press coverage about things that took place many years ago.

5 (continued). ... Can you envision any logical solution or conclusion, or can we expect to see more and more of these cases in the future?

I think the incidence of crime has fallen dramatically. I expect that criminal prosecutions of priests will have a salutary effect on men who feel tempted to injure children.

I cannot predict the behavior of the press. Time will tell.

6. Some people, and at least one US-based priest, have asked that the Pope step down. How much has this happened in the past (priest asking the Pope to resign) or is that unprecedented?

It is not at all unprecedented; such calls for resignation of the pope simply have not gotten headlines in the world press. There was (and perhaps still is) a large group of disaffected Catholics who declared that the popes who confirmed the teaching of Vatican II were heretics and that, therefore, there is no true pope at present. The Latin tag for this claim is "sede vacante" (loosely translated, "seeing that the chair (office) is vacant ..."); the movement is therefore known as "sedevacantism."

In the Great Western Schism, priests, bishops, archbishops, and saints called for one pope or another to resign:

"There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9-14).

7. Many laypersons assume that celibacy causes pedophilia. Are there any studies backing up that claim?

No. On the contrary. Many child abusers are married and many of them sexually abuse their own children. Marriage is not a remedy for sociopathy or psychopathy.

8. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, has reportedly said that "many psychologists have demonstrated that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem." Is there any science to back that up?

It depends on how you define "homosexuality," "pedophilia," and "science." I am not a psychologist, a sociologist, or a social scientist. I observe that the rate of abuse of boys is far higher than the abuse of girls in all age groups. That seems to me to be a matter of fact. I am not in a position to confirm or deny the claim made by Bertone. Perhaps his office would be able to provide the studies to which he was referring?

9. To what extent are people leaving catholic church due to the pedophile scandals? ...

My informal, unscientific impression is that the numbers are quite large.

9 (continued). Are there any data showing that number of people leaving the church has increased due to the huge publicity of the cases in the past 8 or so years?

There is an excellent book by Philip Lawler that documents the decline in numbers in Boston and (by implication) elsewhere. It is called The Faithful Departed.

I can't find my copy of the book right now. I may have given it to a fellow priest.

The other book I strongly recommend is Sacrilege by Leon Podles.

I can't find that book on my bookshelves, either (much to my dismay!).

10. Is the John Jay Report the most comprehensive study on the scale of the scandal?

It was the best study available in 2004. Podles' book is more recent and, if I remember correctly, took the John Jay Report into account.

11. It has been often said that there are no more pedophile priests than there are pedophiles among other groups or professions dealing with children. Do you know of any reliable studies about this?

No. The trouble with trying to compare professions is that the celibate priesthood is not on par with other helping professions or social service groups in terms of its demography. Among my many other disqualifications is that I am not a statistician and I am not familiar with the proper techniques for comparing a group of single males to other groups that may have also abused children. I don't know who would collect such statistics in a fashion that would allow a reasonable comparison of the rates of abuse.

Please note that I am not saying that such studies are impossible or that they do not exist--I'm justing indicating my ignorance of such studies.

12. Vatican and Catholic organisations have often blamed the media for paying too much attention to the pedophile scandals of the Catholic church. What are your thoughts about that?

We would probably be in a better position today if the press had starting covering the scandals earlier. I don't know why the 1992 work of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) didn't get more press.

The old (and now repudiated) Catholic culture was to deal with such scandals quietly and in-house, trying to persuade the wrongdoers to repent and change their ways. Millions of dollars were spent on "treatment" that turned out to be largely ineffective. The new mindset should be to hand priests over to the secular courts and see that they are punished for their wrongdoing to the fullest extent of the law. We should make it perfectly clear that their behavior is not consistent with the Church's view of chastity and is a monstrous crime against the children, the Church, and society.

I am gladdened by the enthusiasm of the press for high moral standards that are objective and not subjective; even the demand that evildoers be punished is part of the great Catholic tradition. It is not enough to be sorry for our sins; we must make amends. Where the Church failed to protect children, it must confess that sin and do penance for it. The press is helping that to take place.

13. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I have a handout called "The Judas Factor" that you might want to look at.

Jesus has been betrayed in every age by men who were chosen to represent Him. The Church has never taught that ordination makes men holy or wise. The sins and crimes of the ordained (deacons, priests, bishops) are contrary to the ethics of the Church but do not contradict any Church teaching. We know that ordained men can and do sin; ordination gives gifts for ministry in the Church but does not turn the ordained into saints--or eunuchs. My faith is in Jesus, not in the people who hold various offices in the Church. I am saddened and dismayed by the sins, crimes, and stupidity of the ordained, but, from a theological standpoint, I am not surprised by it. Sin happens. It is easier to sin than it is to be holy (don't ask me how I know that). The good news is that salvation comes from Jesus, not from popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, or deacons--and Jesus is "the same, yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8).

Thank you for your time!

You're welcome.