We learned this week that a Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, refused to defrock a Wisconsin priest who molested 200 deaf boys. The information became available due to correspondence unearthed in a lawsuit by the abuse victims against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Although some of the students at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, had reported their abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy to church authorities for years, beginning in 1966, their pleas for justice were ignored by church officials and local prosecutors. Instead, the pope honored Father Murphy's request to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood, while local church officials did nothing to stop the abuse at St. John's.
Throughout the sexual abuse scandal, the Catholic Church has fought the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal courts, arguing that its own tribunals are better suited to handle the problem and that its internal documents--such as the correspondence discovered in the Wisconsin lawsuit--are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, in January the new Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, testified against proposed legislation in the Wisconsin Senate that would have expanded the statute of limitations for abuse victims to file lawsuits for their injuries.
Changing the statute of limitations [SOL] extends the deadline for victims to file civil suits against the church and their abusers. Such change is necessary not only because abuse victims frequently do not recognize or confront their abuse until they become adults, but also because the church long sheltered the abusers from criminal and civil authority. SOL reform in California, for example, allowed the state and victims to identify 300 additional perpetrators of sexual abuse whose identities would have remained buried under the old law.
Litigation has been the only effective means of holding the church accountable and identifying the full range of the church's misconduct. Nonetheless, Archbishop Listecki accused supporters of the Wisconsin SOL legislation of targeting the Catholic Church, threatening to drive it into bankruptcy, and thus undermining its services for the poor. The poor will suffer--make no mistake, argued one Catholic opponent of the SOL legislation. In a similar manner, Pope Benedict's supporters have argued that the new Wisconsin stories are a despicable attempt to smear the pope.
Once again, the Vatican is deaf to what is despicable. According to Steven Geier, Fr. Murphy said that God wanted him to teach the boy about sex but that he had to keep it quiet because it was under the sacrament of confession. Only the courts can bring the full extent of the abuse out into the open. It is time for Wisconsin and other states considering SOL reform to listen to the victims and open the courts so that their voices may finally be heard.